The ancient Romans knew a thing or two about a thing or two. Arena building was one of them. A lot of their achievements were borrowed and refined from the Greeks. Today, I am considering the amphitheater of Verona (Italy), where opera has been presented outdoors since 1913.
Founded to honor the centenary of the birth of Verdi, the arena is the largest open-air opera “house” in the world, seating 22,000. “Aida” was the first presentation (conducted by Tullio Serafin), followed by “Carmen” in 1914. Today, the series is about ten weeks long, in the summer from mid-June through the first days of September, with forty-nine performances, including symphony concerts as well as opera.
To sit “in the middle of history” is what it feels like merely to approach the formidable arched structure. The acoustics are marvelous, as they are in so many of the ancient amphitheaters. Amplification is unnecessary, unlike other venues such as New York’s Central Park.
From passionate opera lovers to tourists who come solely from curiosity, the arena is full every night. If you’ve never attended an opera in Italy, it’s quite a different experience from the reverential attitudes normally encountered in New York, or even London and Paris. Italian audiences are “participatory,” not hesitating to shout, whistle, boo, clap, and otherwise show their approval, or their disapproval.
You can spend a lot of money on an organized Verona opera tour group package, or you can just “find” yourself in Italy, go to Verona, and still walk up and get a single ticket. The light at dusk, when most performances begin, is stunning. The sky transforms through myriad shades of blue, darkening to violet and finally, “midnight” blue.
The Fondazione which runs the series, comprises a permanent orchestra, chorus, and ballet corps, so that productions are based on a rehearsing repertory company, with, of course, a mix of international star soloists and excellent “regional” Italian singers. Since 1913, the series has expanded to include indoor performances in an orchestral hall and touring and outreach activities.
The chorus is magnificent, and operas are often selected for their inclusion of a large role for the choir, such as “Nabucco,” “Aida,” or “La Gioconda.” The massed choral sound makes a particularly stirring impression in the vast space, and never fails to rouse the audience to shouts for encores, that is choral encores, which are liberally given. Verdi’s “Requiem” (that most operatic of masses), Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, and Berlioz’s “La Damnation de Faust” are also regularly featured.
This year is the 89th season, beginning on June 17 with a performance of “La Traviata.” Will this summer find you in Verona?
Perhaps you will run into one or both of the “two gentlemen.” Or a modern-day Romeo and Juliet, texting each other to avoid parental feuding. “In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,” as Shakespeare said. Gounod’s “Roméo et Juliette” is one of the favorite productions here, and you can wander the picturesque small city, seeing numerous plaques all claiming to be “the” house of the Capulets or the Montagues.
By the way, one of the food specialties of Verona is the “pandoro,” a golden dome-shaped hybrid of bread and cake. This is not the “fruitcake” that many people use as a doorstop if given one for Christmas. There’s no hardened fruit in it. It’s a moist, dense “loaf” over which is sprinkled vanilla confectioner’s sugar, so that it looks like a snow covered hill. You tear off the lobes of cake with your fingers and mmm mmm enjoy. Accompany it with a caffè of your choosing! There are many brands, but I recommend the “Bauli,” the true pandoro of Verona. And I am not a paid spokesperson.
© 2011 by Frank Daykin, for Innovative Music Programs