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AIDA AND THE CANAL? THE COBBLESTONES OF SUEZ ONCE TROD BY OTHELLO?

EGYPT HAS rich operatic history, but not without misunderstanding, myth and surmise. It has been said that Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida was commissioned to celebrate the grand opening of Cairo’s Khedivial Opera House in 1869. Or was it to celebrate the Suez Canal’s completion that same year? Nope, on either.  But, even more tantalizing, there’s reason to believe the real Othello might have trod cobblestones of what’s now Suez, another Egyptian city of some note.

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Aida, opera by Giuseppe Verdi, cover of an early vocal score, c. 1872.

Verdi’s Aida is set in Egypt of an indeterminate era, with rituals and temples a’plenty. Spoiler Alert: Ethiopian slavegirl Aida and her lover Radamès, Egyptian Captain of the Guards, die together entombed beneath such a temple.

And, in fact, Aida was commissioned by Isma’il Pasha, Khedive of Egypt, for performance (though not the inaugural one) at Cairo’s Khedivial Opera House. The opera’s world premiere took place there on December 24, 1871. It had been slated for an earlier date, but the Franco-Prussian War, 1870 – 1871, caused its costumes and scenery to be stranded in Paris.

It was Verdi’s opera Rigoletto that made the Khedivial Opera House’s opening night, November 6, 1869.

Another important event in November 1869 was the opening of the Suez Canal. Indeed, Verdi had been offered opportunity to compose an inaugural hymn for the occasion. He rejected the gig, with “I am not accustomed to compose occasional pieces.” The Suez Canal ceremony, sans Verdi, took place on November 17, 1869.

Nor did the 1871 Cairo debut of Aida meet with Verdi’s approval. He didn’t attend, but later heard that the audience had been all invited dignitaries, politicians and critics, with no members of the general public. It wasn’t until February 8, 1872, at Milan’s La Scala, that Verdi considered the real premiere of Aida.

I recounted a memorable Aida performance in “Opera Chaos IV” when the tomb doors slid past their intended closure to opposite wings of the stage.

There have been other Aida countretemps decidedly less entertaining. A 1997 production, against the backdrop of the Deir Al-Bahari Temple in Luxor, Egypt, was cancelled after terrorist attacks on tourists. Another scheduled Aida planned with the Pyramids as background was cancelled because of the September 11, 2001, attacks in the U.S.

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Verdi’s Aida. Image from the Metropolitan Opera.

On May 28, 2013, a Cairo Opera House Aida curtain rose to an on-stage strike.  Most recently, and without incident, the opera’s famous Triumphal March was performed in Cairo as part of an August 2015 celebration of the New Suez Canal’s widening.

Enough already on Aida. What about Othello treading the cobblestones of Suez? I came on this tidbit while reading A Volume of Places Which Have Delighted, Intrigued and Intimidated Men, the second time this reference proved useful.

The book cites Famagusta, Cyprus, as “one of the finest remaining monuments of the Latin Kingdom in the East, and the scene of the tragedy of Othello.”

By background, Shakespeare’s Othello and Verdi’s Otello (its Italian rendering) are both based on Un Capitano Moro, A Moorish Captain, by Giovanni Battista Giraldi. Nicknamed Cinthio, he was an Italian novelist and poet, 1504 – 1573, roughly a generation before Shakespeare’s time.

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Lala Mustafa Pasha Mosque, formerly St. Nicholas Cathedral, Famagusta, Cyprus. Image by Gerhard Haubold.

Cyprus, an island in the eastern Mediterranean, has alternated between eastern and western rule through the ages. It was a stopping-off point during the crusades, 1096 – 1487, ruled by Genoa from 1372 and by Venice from 1489 to 1571.

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Verdi’s Otello. Image from the Metropolitan Opera.

To quote A Volume of Places, “A certain officer surnamed Il Moro, with three mulberries as his crest, is believed to have been the origin of Shakespeare’s Moor, but whatever his colour, his legend is part of life at Famagusta…. Desdemona [Othello’s wife] is the name of the harbour tug, and Othello is freely cried in every bar in the town—since it is the name of a local red wine.”

The Suez connection? Again, from A Volume of Places, after an Ottoman takeover of 1571, “The inertia of the Turkish conquest fell on the town and partially preserved it into the nineteenth century, until the construction of the Suez Canal put a new value on old stones. Churches, palaces, fortifications, houses, fell to the stone-wreckers, and the quays of Port Said and Suez are paved with the stones of this city, which was once the richest city of the Levant.”

And a city where Othello may well have walked. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2016

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