I watched this streaming by the New York Metropolitan Opera company two nights ago and found it to be excellent.
Set in ancient Egypt, the story begins with Aida, an Ethiopian who had been captured in an earlier war between her country and Egypt, who is now a slave in the service of Amneris, the daughter of the pharaoh. She keeps secret from everyone that she is really the daughter of the Ethiopian king Amonasro. She and an Egyptian soldier Radames fall in love but then he is appointed commander of the Egyptian forces to challenge the Ethiopian forces who have regrouped and are invading Egypt. Aida is torn between her love for Radames and her desire to have her own nation not be defeated in war.
Things get worse for her because Amneris is also in love with Radames though he does not love her. Amneris suspects, but is not sure, that Radames and Aida are in love with each other and this arouses her jealousy. She falsely tells Aida that even though the Egyptians defeated the Ethiopians, Radames was killed in battle which causes Aida grief and results in her revealing her love for Radames, which enrages Amneris. She vows to destroy Aida.
Then things get even worse for Aida because Radames returns in triumph with captured Ethiopians. The captives include Amonsaro though no one except Aida knows that he is the king. Seeing her father in chains causes Aida even greater anguish. Amonasro tells Aida not to reveal to anyone that he is the king and pressures her to use Radames’ love for her to get him to reveal the movements of the Egyptian troops so that the remaining Ethiopian forces can regroup once again and destroy them. Having to choose between her beloved father’s demands and betraying her lover causes Aida yet more grief.
As you can see, there is a pattern here. Aida just cannot catch a break. Life for her is just one damn thing after another crashing down on her, with each one causing her yet more grief. Her repeated songs of anguish at her worsening plight are heart wrenching to listen to and makes this one of the great tragic roles. You can be sure (spoiler alert!) that this does not end well for her. I imagine that this role is like Hamlet for actors, one that all opera singers desire to play in order to showcase their abilities and demonstrate that they have truly reached the top of their profession.
When it comes to the scale of the production, the only word to describe this opera is ‘epic’. The sets of the Egyptian palace reveal the massive size of the New York Metropolitan opera stage, high, wide, and deep, with huge pillars and statues towering over everyone. The size of the cast is also huge with the scene of the parade celebrating Radames’ triumphant return having a vast number of people and even horse drawn chariots. The sets were so impressive that one change of scene drew spontaneous applause from the audience when one large set slowly sank into the ground to reveal another set of the huge plaza where the parade takes place. Here is that moment from an earlier production in 2012.
While Amneris sets in motion Aida’s and Radames’ doom by exposing his betrayal of Egyptian troop movements, she is overcome by remorse at what her jealousy made her do. Interestingly, in this opera and in The Pearl Fishers, it is the priests who are portrayed as the real villains, being cruel, unyielding, and merciless, by demanding that those who break their rules to follow the desires of their hearts be put to death.