In July 1998 my wife Bernice and I realised a long held ambition to attend the opera festival in Verona. The beautiful city of Romeo and Juliet contains an abundance of Roman architecture, amongst which is the magnificent 22,000 seat amphitheatre known as the Arena di Verona, home to the opera festival since its first season in 1913. The Arena dominates the Piazza Bra, a vast open area bounded on one side by cafes and restaurants spilling out into the open air and on opera nights thronged by expectant crowds waiting to enter the Arena. Scenery is stored spectacularly outside, so that as you approach the Arena you could pass a sphinx from Aida or even chunks of Babylon from Nabucco.
The gates open over two hours before the performance starts, which is after sunset. Many people, particularly those in unnumbered seating positions on the steps of the Arena, prefer to enter early giving them a greater choice of where to sit. We were fortunate for although we were seated on the unnumbered steps we had access to the area close to the stage reserved for the press and guests of the performers. (We were neither!) A picnic supper liberally washed down by the local vin di tavola in the heat of the late afternoon sun helps set you up for the evenings proceedings.
As the sun begins to set and the light starts to fade the Arena rapidly fills as those with numbered seats take their places. Binoculars then swivel toward the seating area in front of stage known as the ‘poltrone’ where the the glitterati sit in comfort, adding another dimension to the evenings entertainment. The wearer of a dress that seems to begin and finish at the naval causes some distraction, but the lights are being switched on, drawing my attention to the preparations for this evening’s performance.
This seasons programme comprised performances of six opera’s. Un Ballo in Maschera (The Masked Ball), Nabucco, Aida, Tosca, Rigoletto and Romeo and Juliet. On our first night at the festival we were to see Verdi’s Masked Ball, which had been performed earlier in the season but not on the previous night. So as we entered the arena we were able to see the set being put in place.
As the light faded and the set construction abated, enter the chief electrician stage left, who, with radio in hand, orchestrated an army of electricians in as efficient performance of fine-lighting you could wish to see. During the space of just over half an hour batteries of fresnels, profiles, beam lights, and follow spots mounted on about 12 towers around the arena were checked, focussed, re-coloured and where necessary gobos added. A masterly performance.
Our second visit was for the season premier of Tosca. The re-focussing on this occasion was conducted by, I assume, the lighting designer. A white suited gentleman gesticulating to great effect on stage.
As the time for the performance approached, members of the orchestra casually make their entrance chatting to each other and to people in the audience as they take their places in front of the stage. To rousing applause the maestro makes his way to the podium, his route being illuminated by a torch bearing assistant. This didn’t prevent an undignified trip occurring on one of the evenings we attended.
By now it is almost completely dark and as is the custom members of this vast audience light candles as the overture commences. The effect is breathtaking and adds to the drama of the evening. As the candles splutter out they are replaced by a myriad of pinpricks of light from the tiny torches the regular opera goers use to follow the libretto.
The audience takes its opera seriously here and can become quite vocal if mistakes are made or voices don’t meet the high standards expected. When in Tosca, Cavaradossi sang the famous aria ‘And the Stars were Shining’ in this vast arena before this hushed multitude, you could feel the expectation in the air. Of course no mistake was made and the voice was perfect and the applause was thunderous.
There are many more memorable moments too numerous to mention. Outstanding were the beautifully performed chorus of the Hebrew slaves in Nabucco and the spectacular scene during the Masked Ball when the vast stage is filled with a cast of hundreds and several horses (non singing of course).
The intervals provided much of interest. There was the fashion parade in front of the stage as the great and good gravitated towards their free champagne. Lighting was taking place onstage and much to our surprise we noticed a celebrity sitting in our midst. Appropriately enough the slightly familiar face turned out to be Mike Morris the much maligned Director of Personnel at the Royal Opera House who featured in the compelling warts and all BBC tv documentary ‘The House’. A lively but good natured discussion ensued regarding his role at Covent Garden during the difficult but absorbing times that the filming to place.
All manner of interval activities are brought to an end by the sound of a gong signalling that the that the next act was about to begin. As your attention is drawn back towards the stage, there stands a slight female figure dressed in costume appropriate to the opera, wielding a gong of J. Arthur Rank proportions, enough to bring a hush over any audience.
Because of the late start performances finished well into the night well into the night. After each of the performance we left the Arena di Verona with a feeling of elation having witnessed a great spectacle carefully balanced so as never to overpower the human voice in its greatest artform.