Archaeology on the opera stage. "Aida" by G.Verdi through the prism of egyptomania of the nineteenth century

Yulia S. Veksler


The article considers opera “Aida” by G. Verdi as one of the manifestations of egyptomania, which means the interest in Ancient Egypt arising in Europe after the Egyptian campaign of Napoleon and a passion for its attributes. The author uses the methodology of source-oriented historical research which aims at historical reconstruction of the past and understanding of artistic phenomena in the cultural context.

The involvement of a wide range of sources unknown in the Russian musicology, primarily letters and memories, allows us to reconstruct the historical context of the opera, which arose at the intersection of European egyptomania and Egyptian europophilia, and to show the role of the Khedive of Egypt, Ismail Pasha and the French egyptologist A. Mariette in the appearance of compositions, as well as to clarify under which circumstances did Verdi received the order for Egyptian opera. Conceived by Mariette as an “egyptological” opera, ”Aida" presents an example of the embodiment of ancient Egyptian realities in different components of the whole opera: libretto, costumes and scenery, and music. If the libretto, which is based on the Egyptian legend recorded by Auguste Mariette's brother Edward, treats historical facts rather freely and abounds in numerous absurdities, costumes and scenery recreating archaeological finds, as well as architectural monuments of Ancient Egypt, are the most reliable. The author of music, Verdi, strives for authenticity: he collects information about the history and geography of Egypt and ancient Egyptian rituals. The attempt to recreate ancient Egyptian musical instruments – flutes and trumpets – was possible only partly due to limited knowledge about these instruments in the XIX century. 

Thus, in the context of European egyptomania “Aida” appears to be an exceptional phenomenon: none of Mariette's contemporaries set themselves the task of creating an egyptological opera. However, the desire for authenticity, on the one hand, was limited to the incompleteness of knowledge, on the other – the specifics of opera's genre, the conventionality of which is poorly compatible with the historical truth. The scientific novelty of the article is determined both by its perspective and by the base of sources, many of which are first introduced into scientific use.

Keywords: Giuseppe Verdi, “Aida”, egyptomania, Egyptology, Auguste Mariette, Cairo Opera House, Egyptian trumpets, Egyptian flute  


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