Verdi’s opera Aïda sees two kingdoms at war – Egypt and Ethiopia – while in real life an actual war between the Second French Empire and the Kingdom of Prussia left sets and costumes stranded in Paris, delaying its premiere in Cairo two years, finally greeting an approving audience on Christmas Eve in 1871. In modern times, the fictional story of ancient Egypt has not only graced opera houses around the world, but has performed against a backdrop of the actual Sphinx and Pyramids of Giza.
In the story, the Ethiopian army marches on Thebes to free Aïda, an Ethiopian princess who is held captive as a slave by the Egyptians, though they are unaware of her royal identity. Radamès, an Egyptian warrior, is placed in charge of the army and returns, where the Triumphal March sets the scene for the parade of the victors and the spoils of war before the Pharaoh, priests, and people of Egypt. In the original form, a short ballet occurs in the middle, encompassing a dance of celebration, and the choir sings:
Raise we our festive songs!
Hither advance, oh glorious band,
Mingle your joy with ours,
Green bays and fragrant flowers
Scatter their path along.
The triumph of Radamès, who appears at the end of the March on a golden chariot, is crucial to the plot. The Egyptians call for the death of the Ethiopian prisoners, but as Radamès is promised anything he wishes as reward for the victory, he asks the Pharaoh to spare their lives. Though, as with just about every opera in this period, there is no happy ending and both Radamès and Aïda are eventually burned alive, the Triumphal March nonetheless sets forward a beautiful scene of majestic glory, victory, freedom, and love.
While originally at some sections with choir, Verdi’s score allows for a purely orchestral performance with truncation but otherwise without alteration. As many famed works go, it has come with its own share of urban myths, including being the basis of the Egyptian national anthem and being commissioned for the opening of the Suez Canal, claims that do not appear to be substantiated.
— Andrew Filmer