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Music by Giuseppe Verdi
Libretto by Antonio Ghislanzoni
Sung in Italian
Time: The dynasty of the Pharaohs
Place: Memphis and Thebes in ancientEgypt
In the royal palace at Memphis, the high priest, Ramfis, informs Radames, a young captain of the guard, that Ethiopia is posing athreat to the Nile Valley. Radames hopes that the goddess Isis will chose him to be the leader of the Egyptian army, believing that a victory over the Ethiopians would enable him to free his secret love, Aida, the Ethiopian slave of the king's daughter, Amneris ("Celeste Aida"). Amneris, who also loves Radames, enters and begins to question Radames, suspecting that he is in love with Aida. A messenger arrives to announce that Amonasro is leading the Ethiopian army to march on Thebes. Radames is appointed leader of the Egyptian army, and he leads his men in singing a battle hymn ("Su! del Nilo!"). Amneris is echoed by her people as she cries, "Return Victorious!" Aida is stunned to hear herself repeat these words, and is left to contemplate her conflict of loyalties ("Ritorna vincitor!"). Although her captors do not know it, she is the Princess of Ethiopia and now her lover will be engaged in battle with her father.
Radames is successful in winning the battle. While awaiting his return, Amneris is groomed and entertained by her slaves. In an attempt to determine if Aida does indeed love Radames, Amneris tells her slave that he was slain in battle ("Fu la sorte degli armi"). Aida's sorrowful response reveals her secret love. Amneris discloses that Radames is really alive, but then threatens her, warning Aida to keep her place as a slave and ignore her feelings for Radames. Aida nearly confesses her royal identity, but instead, pleads for mercy. As Radames returns, a parade and dances celebrate the success of Egypt ("Gloria all' Egitto, ad Iside"). Radames is crowned victor by Amneris and his captives are lead in, among them Aida's father, Amonasro, disguised as an officer. He warns Aida not to give away his royal identity, and proceeds to plead for mercy for the lives of his fellow people ("Ma tu, Re, tu signore possente"). Ramfis and the priests suggest killing the captives, but Radames asks for the captives' freedom to be his reward. Ramfis suggests that all but Aida's father be released. The King agrees and gives Radames the hand of Amneris as his reward for victory.
Amneris is lead by Ramfis to a temple of Isis on the bank of the Nile to receive the goddess' blessing on the eve of her wedding. Her face veiled, Aida enters to wait in secrecy for Radames. She finds herself caught up in nostalgic thoughts as she longs for her conquered homeland ("O patria mia"). Her thoughts are interrupted by the appearance of her father, who has learned of her love for Radames. He encourages her to betray Radames by tricking him into revealing the intended route of the Egyptian army's entry into Ethiopia ("Rivedrai le foreste imbalsamate"). She attempts to decline, but finally agrees as he scolds her loyalties and reminds her of what the Egyptians have done to her beloved homeland. Unaware of Amonasro's presence, Radames appears to Aida, declaring that he will marry her after his next victory. She instead insists that they run away together to Ethiopia ("Fuggiam gli ardori inospiti"), and asks which route they will take. Upon hearing the Egyptian plan, Amonasro shows himself and declares that he is actually the King of Ethiopia. Radames is horrified by his unwilling act of treason ("Io son disonorato!"), while Aida and Amonasro try to convince him that it was fate's doing. Amneris leaves the temple and discovers them, declaring that Radames must be a traitor. Amonasro lunges at Amneris with a drawn dagger, but is stopped by Radames who urges him and Aida to escape as he surrenders himself ("Sacerdote, io resto a te").
Radames is sent to the temple of judgement where Amneris offers him a chance to save himself. She will plead for him if will forsake Aida ("Giż i sacerdoti adunansi"), yet he refuses, preferring death. Amneris listens as the priests ask him three times to defend himself. Radames refuses to answer and is condemned to death. Amneris, appalled at the consequences of her jealousy, declares that their need for revenge has killed an innocent man.
Buried alive in a tomb beneath the temple, Radames' last thoughts are about Aida, when suddenly she appears in the grave, having slipped in earlier to share his fate. Radames fails at a final attempt to remove the stone holding them in the chamber, and, resigned to their fate, the lovers bid farewell to the earth ("O terra addio"). Radames faces death with Aida, while above, Amneris prays for peace.