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A Piece of Opera's Genius at Stanford

Rare 'Aida' score may have notes by Verdi's own hand.

Photo: Linda A. Cicero/Stanford News Service

Composer Giuseppe Verdi had dominated Italian opera for a quarter of a century before he debuted Aida, perhaps his most famous work, in 1871. Aida’s highly anticipated Paris premiere took place five years later at the Théâtre-Italien, starring several singers from the 1872 European premiere in Milan. More than a century later, the only surviving full score from that 1876 premiere is now with Stanford scholars.

The artifact also is believed to be the sole remaining score from an Aida performance Verdi conducted; one used in the debut in Cairo was destroyed by a fire in 1971.

“The more I work with it, the more excited I feel,” says Heather Hadlock, associate professor of music. “This production is an essential link to the opera’s original form as presented in Cairo and Milan.”

The opera tells the story of a forbidden love between Aida, an Ethiopian princess who was captured by the Egyptian military, and Radamès, an Egyptian commander. It became an immediate international success with dozens of productions across Europe and the Americas.

Photo: Linda A. Cicero/Stanford News Service

Mimi Tashiro, a music bibliographer for Stanford Libraries, found the manuscript in the catalog of a Sotheby’s auction two years ago. “We look for things that are unique, and they don’t come that often,” she says. “So, this was a very nice surprise.”

While examining the score, which contains both orchestral and vocal instruction, Hadlock noted layers of pencil marks — an indication of a working document. “We’re trying to figure out if any of the pencil annotations come from Verdi’s own hand,” she says. “Was he standing at the podium during rehearsals making notes?”

Photo: Linda A. Cicero/Stanford News Service

During a seminar led by Hadlock last fall, students inspected the 1876 score and compared it with other versions. Contrary to many operas written in the 19th century, there are only minor discrepancies between earlier and later Aida scores. A new moment in opera history was emerging, Hadlock says, as Verdi paved the way for composers to exercise greater — and more lasting — authority over their work.

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