“Freudig begrüßen wir die edle Halle”
“Dich, teure Halle”
“O du, mein holder Abendstern”
In Joon Jang
“Komm’! Komm’! holder Knabe!”
VanNessa Hulme, Jennifer Miller, Judy Tran and the Women’s Chorus
“Enthüllet den Gral!”, “Nein! Nicht mehr!”, “Nur eine Waffe taugt”,
“Höchsten Heiles Wunder!”
Shem von Schroeck, Mr. Jang and the Chorus
DER FLIEGENDE HOLLÄNDER (1843)
“Steuermann! Lass die Wacht!”
Brian Kim and the Chorus
DIE MEISTERSINGER VON NÜRNBERG (1868)
“Selig, wie die Sonne”
Ms. Wood, Ms. Tran, Mr. von Schroeck, Mr. Jang and Stephen Anastasia
“Ehrt eure deutschen Meister”
Ms. Wood, Mr. von Schroeck, Mr. Jang and the Chorus
“Va, pensiero, sull’ ali dorate”
DON CARLO (1867)
“Spuntato ecco il di”
“Dio che nell’ alma infondere amor”
Mr. von Schroeck, Mr. Jang and the Men’s Chorus
LA FORZA DEL DESTINO (1862)
“Pace, mio Dio”
IL TROVATORE (1853)
“Vedi! le fosche notturne spoglie”
“Stride la vampa!”
“Or co’ dadi, ma fra poco”
The Men’s Chorus
“Chi mai fra gl’ inni e i plausi”
Ms. Koushakjian and the Women’s Chorus
“Fu la sorte dell’ armi a’ tuoi funesta”
Ms. Wood and Ms. Koushakjian
Grand March and Finale to Act II
Ms. Wood, Ms.Koushakjian, Mr. von Schroeck, Mr. Jang, Sang Wook Kwon, Mauricio A. Palma II and the Chorus
Ancient Germanic myths became extremely important to Wagner as he strove to create a unique Gesamstkunstwerk, or total work of art. For Tannhäuser, Wagner drew on several Germanic legends as well as the historical figure of the 13th century minnesinger (minstrel/poet) Tannhäuser, who may have figured in one of the Crusades. In a 16th century version, Danhuser or Tannhäuser is seduced by Venus, is denied forgiveness by the Pope, and finally returns to the arms of Venus. While the ancient tale of the singers’ contest at the Wartburg is not part of the Tannhäuser legend, Wagner found it compelling, as it featured a singer whose songs were different from the others in the contest. Always feeling himself a misunderstood artist, Wagner combined the two legends. Tannhäuser focuses on the conflicts between the piety of the Middle Ages and post-Rennaissance free thought. The themes contrast carnal love as identified with older religious deities such as Venus, and a more spiritual love embodied in Elisabeth and the Christian doctrines of penitence and redemption.
Wagner began to plan his opera, initially titled Der Venusberg (The Mountain of Venus), while hiking in the Bohemian mountains. Hearing a goatherd whistling a merry tune in a valley as he tended his flock, Wagner imagined a flood of singing pilgrims surrounding him. He finished the libretto, now entitled Tannhäuser and the Singers’ Contest at the Wartburg, in May of 1843 and completed scoring the opera in April, 1845.
In the first act we meet Tannhäuser in the arms of Venus in her mountain grotto. Disillusioned with his life of pleasure, Tannhäuser entreats Venus to release him to the mortal world. Despite her efforts to keep him with her, Tannhäuser invokes Mary and finds himself returned to his native Wartburg valley, ruled by Prince Hermann, the Landgrave of Thüringen. The Landgrave’s niece Elisabeth, secretly in love with Tannhäuser, has not participated in the traditional song contests since his departure. Learning that Tannhäuser has returned and will sing, she agrees to preside with her uncle as the queen of the song festival, to the delight of the area’s nobles.
In Act II, the nobles of the land approach the Hall of Song, anticipating the upcoming contest. They salute the Hall joyfully (“Freudig begrüßen wir die edle Halle”), celebrating it as the home of art and peace, and proudly acclaim their Landgrave, Hermann.
Elisabeth herself greets the Hall of Song, from which she has been absent so long (“Dich, teure Halle”) (“Dear Hall, I greet you again”), and rejoices in its glorious tradition and her delight at returning to hear Tannhäuser compete in the contest. Joy had left the hall when he departed, and now Tannhauser has returned to revive both her and the hall. However, as the song contest proceeds, Tannhäuser challenges the chaste love extolled by other singers and becomes more frenzied as he reverts to his hymn to Venus. The audience, the other singers and Elisabeth are appalled. She saves him from their fury and Tannhäuser, penitent, agrees to journey to Rome as a pilgrim to ask forgiveness.
As Act III opens, Elisabeth is praying at Mary’s shrine for Tannhäuser‘s salvation. She and Wolfram, another of the minnesingers, watch for Tannhäuser among the returning pilgrims. He is not among them, and she departs forlorn for the Wartburg. Wolfram, who also loves her, knows she is dying. In “O du, mein holder Abendstern,” he asks that the lovely evening star greet Elisabeth’s soul as it passes by. (Ironically, the Evening Star is the planet Venus, thus uniting chaste and carnal love.)
Parsifal was Wagner’s last opera. He lived to see it produced in 1882 at the Bayreuth Festival Theatre that he had designed, with funding predominantly from King Ludwig II of Bavaria, Wagner’s long-time patron and admirer. The subtitle for the opera is A Festival Play to Dedicate the Stage. With Wagner deeply in debt, Ludwig came to his aid, with the proviso that Parsifal be produced only at Bayreuth. (It was nonetheless soon found on the world’s stages.) Wagner completed his libretto for the opera in 1878. In failing health (beset by multiple heart attacks, rheumatism and a skin condition), work on the score proceeded slowly as Wagner moved between his villa in Bayreuth and Naples. On his return to Germany, Wagner conducted a private performance of the Prelude to Parsifal for Ludwig and was granted funds for the production. Ludwig also offered him the chorus and orchestra of the Munich Opera.
Wagner oversaw every aspect of the premiere, auditioning singers a year before the opening. He supervised designs for the costumes and stage settings while continuing to work on the score in Bayreuth in the summer of 1881. He finished the score in Palermo, then returned to Bayreuth to stage the opera for the 1882 summer festival. Wagner had objected to Ludwig’s conductor, Hermann Levi, on the grounds that he was Jewish. Ludwig, who was involved with a young Jewish actor, overruled Wagner’s anti-Semitism and insisted that Levi conduct the opera or there would be no production. Wagner acquiesced, recognizing that Levi was a superior musician and conductor. He then tried to make things so disagreeable that Levi would leave, which he did, asking Ludwig to be relieved. Ludwig made it clear that he had no patience with racial/religious intolerance. Levi returned to conduct the premiere on July 26, 1882. On August 29th, during the final performance of the run, Wagner entered the orchestra pit and took the baton from Levi, conducting the last scene. Levi described the public’s enthusiastic response to the production in a letter to his father, Rabbi Levi, stating that there was “jubilation defying description.”
The young Parsifal stumbles upon Montsalvat in Act I, home of the Grail Knights, where he observes the agony of the Knights’ leader, Amfortas. The magician Klingsor, embittered at being rejected by the Grail Knights, has wounded Amfortas with the spear that pierced Christ’s side, following Amfortas’ seduction by Kundry, a cursed woman in thrall to Klingsor. Since his wounding, Amfortas has refused to uncover the Holy Grail that allegedly held the spilled blood of Christ, on which the Grail Knights depend for spiritual sustenance. The uncomprehending Parsifal is dismissed as a naïve fool by the Knights, who don’t realize that he is the Reiner Tor, or the Fool made wise by pity, who has been prophesied to save their band. Parsifal unwittingly embarks on a quest that will lead to his recovering the spear and healing Amfortas.
In Act II, Parsifal approaches the stronghold of Klingsor after a period of wandering. The magician conjures a magical garden inhabited by Flower Maidens. They attempt to seduce Parsifal as they did Amfortas, thus delivering him up to Klingsor’s power. Their alluring invitation, “Komm’! Komm’! holder Knabe!” (“Come, come, handsome youth!”), attracts and bewilders him. They each offer their charms, claiming him as their own. When Parsifal manages to resist them, they disappear. Kundry approaches him and reminds him of his deceased mother. Parsifal suddenly comprehends the wounding of Amfortas and his own mission to recover the spear and resists Kundry’s advances. Parsifal catches the sacred spear which Klingsor hurls at him and makes the sign of the cross with it. The castle falls into ruins.
In Act III Parsifal finds his way back to Montsalvat on Good Friday. The knights entreat Amfortas, who wants only death, to uncover the Grail (“Enthüllet den Gral!”). Crying “Nein! Nicht mehr!” (no, never more!), Amfortas begs them to kill him and end his suffering.
Parsifal enters with the sacred spear and is taken to the ailing Amfortas whom he tells that only one weapon can heal him (“Nur eine Waffe taugt”). He touches the spear to the wound and absolves Amfortas. Anointed as the new keeper of the Grail, Parsifal unveils it as Amfortas, the Grail Knights and the young acolytes praise Parsifal as their redeemed redeemer (“Höchsten Heiles Wunder!”).
In 1839, the twenty-six year old Wagner and his wife Minna, along with their dog Robber, were smuggled aboard the ship Thetis in the port of Riga in an effort to avoid his creditors. They were the only passengers. Wagner planned to take the six-day voyage to London, then go on to Paris in an effort to further his career. However, the voyage turned into a nearly three-week, storm-tossed ordeal.
Wagner was already aware of the ancient legend of the Flying Dutchman, doomed to sail for eternity after swearing he would round a certain cape in his ship. Given the ferocity of the storms that repeatedly lashed their ship, it is small wonder that Wagner’s thoughts turned to this legend. Wagner may well have felt like the cursed Dutchman, given his financial plight and the terrifying waves and gusts. When the ship put into port for respite mid-voyage, Wagner was impressed by the sailors’ chants and ditties as they hoisted sail and worked the decks. Despite their increasing poverty during their stay in Paris, Wagner completed the Dutchman score. Although retaining elements of more conventional operatic form, he was already moving away from the more traditional forms of his first three operas and developing his own musical style and language. His harrowing sea journey clearly influenced this work. As one conductor said, “Wherever you open the score, the wind blows out at you.”
In a version of the Dutchman legend by the German poet Heinrich Heine, Wagner found a theme that was to occupy him throughout his life – redemption through love – and runs through most of his operas, including Dutchman, Tannhäuser, Parsifal, and Die Meistersinger, as well as the Ring of the Nibelungen. Heine had added to the older legend the possibility of the Dutchman’s redemption once every seven years, when he could land in search of a woman who would be true unto him until death (the devil believing that no such woman existed and the Dutchman would thus be damned forever.)
As the curtain rises on Act III, we see the Dutchman’s ship anchored in port next to a Norwegian ship just returned home. Daland, the Norwegian captain, is hoping to marry his daughter Senta to the wealthy Dutchman, unaware of his identity. The two ships present a striking contrast. The boisterous Norwegian sailors celebrate their homecoming on board and on the dock with drinking, dancing and a lighted vessel. The Dutch ship is shrouded in blackness, with no sign of light or crew, only deadly gloom and total quiet.
The sailors jokingly entreat Daland’s Steuermann, or Helmsman, to leave his watch and join them in their revelries (“Steuermann! Lass die Wacht!”). As they swab the decks and furl the sails, they exult that they are away from the storms at sea. Relieved that there are no winds or rocky shoals to fear, they are coming home to their sweethearts who will soon greet them. They extol the pleasures of good tobacco and brandy now available. As the village girls arrive with baskets of food and drink and see the sailors dancing and making merry without them, they joke that they and their offerings are not needed and that they will share their bounty with sailors on the strange Dutch ship. The Helmsman seconds their decision, saying that the other sailors are surely thirsty, and he remarks on the silence and darkness of the ship.
The girls yell to the still ship, inviting the unseen sailors to join them, while Daland’s sailors entreat the girls to share with them, too. The exchanges between the sailors and the women continue in a flirtatious vein, but slowly begin to shift as there is no response from the Dutch ship, despite the women’s entreaties. The women shout to the unseen sailors for lights, then mockingly decide that they’re already asleep and tucked into their bunks. After the women depart, the sailors repeat their invitation to their Helmsman, asking him to join them in the celebration.
Wagner frequently worked on several of his operas at the same time, sketching out the story for one, scoring another, writing the full libretto for a third, supervising the production of a fourth. During the summer of 1845, after completing Tannhäuser and beginning the work that eventually led to Lohengrin, Wagner became interested in tradesmen’s guilds from medieval times. He was fascinated by the figure of Hans Sachs, an actual historical figure: poet, mastersinger and cobbler. There had been a now-forgotten play about Sachs that Wagner probably saw, as well as an opera about him by Lortzing. Wagner had also consulted a history of Nuremberg that included a lengthy account of the origins and rules of the craft of the Meistersingers there. The idea of a song contest with a hidebound old guard opposed to new musical ideas fit Wagner’s views regarding critics of his operas, as had the earlier song contest in Tannhäuser.
After working on the libretto in Paris in 1862, he began composing later in the 1860’s at the urging of Matilde Wesendonk (his inspiration for Tristan und Isolde). When Wagner was forced to leave Bavaria due to public outrage over his relationship with and alleged influence on King Ludwig, Ludwig was devastated and paid for Wagner’s home near Lucerne (where he was to live for the next six years). Here he completed composition of the opera and began to dictate his memoirs. The orchestration was finished in 1867, and rehearsals in Munich in 1868 culminated in the premiere on June 21. Due to changes in the political climate, Wagner was able to return to Bavaria to oversee the production. At the premiere he sat in the royal box next to Ludwig, provoking an outraged response when he stepped forward to acknowledge the applause. Unlike the initial reception of many of his operas, Meistersinger was a triumph for Wagner.
The opera opens on the eve of St. John’s Day. In a church in Nuremberg, Eva is seated with her companion Magdalene but preoccupied with a young man, Walther, who is standing nearby and trying to get her attention. He is visiting her father in Nuremberg and the two fall in love. Eva informs Walther that her father, Pogner, has promised her hand in marriage, along with his considerable wealth, to whichever Meistersinger wins the song contest the following day.
Walther determines to win the contest and claim Eva as his bride. Eva introduces him to David, apprentice to Hans Sachs, her neighbor and a highly respected poet and Meistersinger. She asks David to instruct Walther, which he attempts to do, as the other apprentices set up one part of the church for a meeting of the guild of Meistersingers. Walter presents a song to them, but his efforts do not follow their elaborate codes, and he is rejected as a member of the guild. Due to his failure to gain admittance, Walther and Eva plan to elope. Hans Sachs prevents this by setting up his cobbler’s bench outside his house on the narrow street. Unlike the other Meistersingers, Sachs has been taken with Walther’s new type of song. When the town clerk, another suitor for Eva’s hand, attempts to serenade her, Sachs critiques his song by cobbling with his hammer for each error , provoking a street riot. Eva returns home, and Sachs pulls Walther into his home for the night.
In Act III, Walther tells Sachs of a dream he had the night before. The magnanimous Sachs coaches Walther on turning it into a prize song with the appropriate form and number of verses. Eva comes to Sachs’ home pretending that her shoe pinches her and requires Sachs’ attention, but really to determine what has happened to Walther. Eva gladly recognizes Sachs’ kindness in Selig, wie die Sonne” (“Happy, as the sun smiles on my fortune”), and is joined by Walther, Sachs, David and Magdalene, each voicing their true feelings: Eva understands that Sachs has helped her dream come true, Walther believes he can win her in the song contest, Sachs sings of the beautiful dream that has produced Walther’s song, and David and Magdalene are both thrilled that Sachs has promoted him to Journeyman and they can marry.
In the second scene, the St. John’s Day festivities are under way. Walther sings his Prize Song and is named a Meistersinger, but initially refuses the title due to his earlier rejection. Sachs persuades him to accept it, asking “Ehrt eure deutschen Meister” (“I beg you to honor your German masters”). All join with Sachs in extolling the virtues of “die heil’ge deutsche Kunst” (“the holy German art”), and the townspeople laud their “teurem Sachs” (“beloved Sachs”) as the curtain falls.
Based on the biblical history of the Hebrew captivity in Babylon under the rule of Nabucco (Nebuchednezzar), the opera was Giuseppe Verdi’s first great success. The composer himself was to write in later years, “With this opera, you can truly say that my artistic career began.” The Chorus of Hebrew Slaves, “Va, pensiero, sull’ali dorate” (“Fly, thought, on golden wings”) has remained one of the most loved pieces of music in Italy. Sung by the captive Jews as they labor by the banks of the Euphrates, awaiting death at the hands of their Babylonian captors, the chorus resonated deeply with an Italian public under the yoke of Austrian occupation. The Hebrew slaves yearn for the sweet air in their fatherland, so beautiful and lost. Remembering the time that was, they pray to the Lord for the strength to endure.
Spain seemed to hold a special fascination for Giuseppe Verdi; it was apparently the only country he visited solely as a tourist. It is not difficult to see in the operas that he set in Spain some of the appeal of its history, its literature and its vibrant culture, familiar to Verdi because Spain had ruled much of Italy for large chunks of Italy’s history, and also had a long and contentious relationship with Austria (for much of Verdi’s life, the occupying force in his province of Lombardy) in their struggle for control of the Holy Roman Empire. Spain was also notorious for its particularly vicious brand of the Inquisition, still a potent symbol of suppression of independent thought. Thus Spain provided Verdi with settings in which he could express his own longing for freedom and autonomy, revealed so profoundly in his signature chorus, Va, pensiero. In La forza del destino, the Italian soldiers are encouraged to defeat the occupying Spanish. In addition, Verdi drew on Spanish gypsy culture for characters such as Azucena in Il Trovatore, and was able to humanize their desire for liberty and independence without resorting to the usual gypsy clichés of rattling castanets and flashing teeth.
Based on Schiller’s 1787 play Don Carlos, the opera was originally set by Verdi on a French libretto by Camille du Locle and Joseph Méry for its premiere at the Paris Opéra. The drama begins with a truce between Spain and France in 1558. The title character is the son and presumed heir of Phillip II, King of Spain, who had annulled his son’s betrothal to the French princess Elizabeth and married the much younger Elizabeth himself. The familial conflicts take place amidst the sweep of a revolt against Spanish occupation in Flanders (the Netherlands) at the height of the Spanish Inquisition.
In Act II Scene 2, a huge crowd has gathered to witness an auto-de-fé – a ritual burning at the stake of heretics condemned by the Inquisition (a scene not in Schiller’s original play). The crowd exults that the day of rejoicing has dawned (“Spuntato ecco il di”) and praises the honor of Phillip, the greatest of all kings. Their love will follow him everywhere and never diminish, for his name is the pride of Spain and must live forever. Monks lead the condemned across the square, saying their fatal day, the day of terror, has arrived and they must die. But on the day of judgment, the voice of heaven will forgive their sins if they repent at this final hour. As the excited mob again praises the glory of the king, a celestial voice is heard telling the condemned to let their souls fly to heaven to find peace in God.
In Act I, Scene 1, Don Carlo greets his long-time friend Rodrigo, the Marquis di Posa, and admits to di Posa that he and Elizabeth are secretly in love. Di Posa tells the prince that he should relinquish his hopeless love and help the oppressed people of Flanders, whom di Posa supports. Knowing that his boyhood friend supports a peaceful solution to Spain’s war on the Flemish rebels fighting for independence, Di Posa urges Carlos to ask heaven for strength. Together they ask God, who instilled love and hope in their souls (“Dio, che nell’alma infondere amor”) to kindle a desire for liberty in their souls. They swear that they will live and die together, on earth and in heaven.
Verdi employed Francesco Maria Piave as librettist (the last of their eleven collaborations) to adapt the Spanish play Don Alvaro by Angel de Saavedra, which had been a great success in Spain in 1835 and launched the romantic movement in Spanish theater. The opera ranges across Spain and Italy in the 18th Century against the backdrop of Italy’s drawn out battle for independence from Spanish rule (a topic dear to Verdi’s heart). It follows the failed elopement of Leonora and Don Alvaro, the accidental killing by Don Alvaro of Leonora’s father, and the relentless pursuit of the lovers by Leonora’s vengeful brother Carlo as the three protagonists are separated, then tragically reunited as war rages around them.
Leonora has been separated from Don Alvaro and is falsely convinced that he has betrayed her and returned to his home in South America. She has entered a hermitage to live a life of atonement and self-sacrifice, but years of relentless religious devotion have failed to still her love for Don Alvaro. In the final act, Leonora cries out to God for peace (“Pace, mio Dio”), recalling the cruel misfortune that she has suffered for too many years. She admits she still loves Don Alvaro in spite of her attempts to erase his image from her heart. She bemoans the tragic fate that has separated them forever, and pleads with God to let her die, for only death can give her the peace she has sought for so long.
The first scene of Act II is set at daybreak in a gypsy encampment in the mountains. As the men take up their hammers and go to work at their anvils, they greet the sun pulling off the night’s dark cloak (“Vedi! le fosche notturne spoglie”) and ask “Who is it who cheers the gypsy’s days? The gypsy girl!” The women bring wine as the men fall to work. Azucena remains apart, lost in her memory of a roaring blaze (“Stride la vampa!”) and the untamed crowd howling as a disheveled and barefoot victim (her mother) is brought by guards to the bonfire to be burned as a witch. She shudders at the memory of the terrible death cry which echoed from the cliffs as the flames lit the horrible faces of the mob.
In Act III, the Count de Luna is besieging Castellor, the last fortress held by the rebels (under the leadership of the “troubadour”, Azucena’s son Manrico). De Luna’s soldiers gamble in the camp as they await the order to storm the castle. For now, they’re playing with dice, but soon they’ll be playing quite another game (“Or co’ dadi, ma fra poco”), and their shining blades will be sprinkled with blood. They welcome the arrival of reinforcements, who appear full of valor, because now the attack on Castellor won’t be delayed any longer. Their captain, Ferrando, tells them that they will indeed attack the fortress the next day and they will find both riches and glory. The soldiers relish the thought of the sound of trumpets leading them to war. Tomorrow their standard will be planted on top of the fortress. Never has victory smiled more brightly than she does now, and they look forward to their anticipated treasure and honor.
Verdi had declined an invitation to write a celebratory hymn for the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, although his longtime friend and assistant Muzio had directed the music for the Canal’s opening, as well as Rigoletto for the opening of the new Cairo Opera House. The Egyptian leaders persisted, however, and Verdi agreed to write a new opera for Cairo provided it would have an Egyptian story and setting. The prominent French archeologist and Egyptologist Auguste Mariette promptly provided a scenario, and Verdi engaged Antonio Ghislanzoni (the librettist of the revised La forza del destino) as librettist. As he insisted for all of his libretti, Verdi constantly reminded Ghislanzoni that he wanted the “theatrical words” – i.e., the words that would develop characters or story, and not just high poetry arranged in a conventional way. (As usual, Verdi didn’t hesitate to rewrite the words when he felt the need. If he found a lyric too highly wrought, he would sharpen it to a more direct statement suited to the character.) Staging and rehearsals were undertaken in Paris rather than Cairo, so that suitable singers could be engaged and production values closely monitored. The long siege of Paris during the Franco-Prussian War delayed the opening of the production in Egypt until 1871, when it proved a great success. This was followed by the extraordinary success of Aïda’s premiere at La Scala in 1872.
Based on a number of sources, the story of Aïda suited the intense interest in Egyptian history aroused by the archeological finds of the 19th century (presaging the Egyptian mania later produced by the discovery of King Tut’s tomb) as well as the opening of the Suez Canal. Seemingly the quintessence of grand opera due to the majesty of the setting and intense historical struggle of the principals, Verdi outdid himself in using the elaborate musical and theatrical frame to concentrate on the intense personal drama of the leading characters. The daughter of Amonasro, the King of Ethiopia, Aïda has been captured by the Egyptians, who are ignorant of her royal status. She is now the slave-girl of Amneris, the daughter and heir of the Egypian king. Amneris loves the young officer Radamès and is not only unaware that Aïda is a princess but that she and Radamès are secretly in love. Aïda submits to Amonasro’s demands that she save her country and betray Radamès by obtaining his plan to crush the Ethiopian army once and for all. Rather than defend himself against the subsequent charge of treason, Radamès goes to his death to find that Aïda has secretly joined him in what will be their living tomb.
In the first scene of Act II, the Egyptian princess Amneris is in her apartments, being adorned by her slave women for the celebration to honor Radamès and the Egyptian troops for their triumph over the Ethiopians. The slaves praise the fame of the conqueror (“Chi mai fra gl’inni e i plausi”) as they ornament their mistress and sing of the glory of their love. Amneris anxiously awaits her beloved, calling out to him to come to her and gladden her heart, as the dancing slaves prepare a crown of laurel for the conquering hero. Seeing Aïda enter by herself, Amneris dismisses the other women. She suspects that Aïda is her rival for Radamès’ love and resolves to find out. Feigning love and concern for Aïda’s distress over her country’s defeat (“Fu la sorte dell’ armi a’ tuoi funesta”), she offers Aïda her friendship and support and says that Aïda must find a lover to help her recover from her grief. In an aside, Aïda bemoans the joy and the torment of her secret love for Radamès, whose smile is like heaven to her. Amneris observes her slave’s emotion and asks if she already loves one of the Egyptian warriors, pretending that Radamès has been killed in battle. Aida’s despair at this news is the evidence Amneris seeks, and the princess tells Aïda that it is not true – Radamès lives. Aïda is overjoyed that he survives, enraging Amneris even further. Aïda admits her love, saying she is Amneris’ equal in love in spite of their different stations. Amneris rails at her rival, promising death and revenge. Aïda begs for pity for her sorrow, but Amneris insists that she kneel as her slave at the triumphal feast. Aïda again begs for compassion, saying that Amneris’ anger will soon be appeased – that the love that so inflames Amneris will soon lie with Aïda in her grave.
In the Finale to Act II, the Pharaoh and his court have come to Thebes to greet the triumphant Radamès following his victory. As the captured soldiers are brought forward, Aïda inadvertently exclaims, “My father!”. Amonasro signals to Aïda not to betray his royal status and informs the Egyptians that he is indeed Aïda’s father, a soldier in the service of the Ethiopian king, and that the king was killed in battle. The people hail the glory of Egypt, their sacred protector Isis, and their king, and cheer the conquering hero Radamès as they lay laurel and flowers in his path. The women twine laurel wreaths for the soldiers as they call on the young girls to dance like the stars in the sky. The priests give thanks to their army and the god who has brought this lucky day. To the sound of Verdi’s famous Triumphal March, Radamès enters the city gates. As reward for his success, he asks the king to spare the lives of the captured Ethiopians and grant their liberty. The priests call for death to the prisoners, but the people join in Radamès’ plea for mercy. The high priest Ramphis protests that Egypt’s enemies will always seek revenge and pardon will allow them to return to fight again. Radamès says they are safe now that the Ethiopian king is dead (having been fooled by Amonasro’s subterfuge). The king bows to Ramphis’ advice that Aïda’s father at least be held as a hostage. As Radamès’ reward, the king decrees that Radamès shall marry Amneris and one day rule Egypt with her. Amneris is triumphant and dares Aïda to take Radamès from her. The priests and the people salute Isis and ask that fate always smile on them, while the Ethiopian prisoners praise the merciful Egyptians for granting them freedom and a return to their native soil. In the general triumph and jubilation, Aïda is devastated that Radamès’ triumph has stolen her desperate hope for his love, while Radamès is thunderstruck and realizes that the throne of Egypt is not worth losing Aïda‘s heart. Meanwhile Amonasro tells Aïda to take heart, that he sees a hopeful end for their country and his hope of revenge.