People have sought entertainment at the Arena di Verona since Roman times. Two thousand years ago they travelled from across the Empire to watch gladiators and wild animals fighting to the death, or to marvel at slightly less bloody circus acts and equestrian events. Visitors still pack into the stadium today, but for a quite different type of spectacle: the Verona Opera Festival.
The Verona Opera Festival, Part of a Long Tradition
It was my second time at the Verona Opera Festival. Ten years ago I saw Aida and Turandot; this time I was here for Tosca and Don Giovanni (possibly my all time favourite opera). The whole town was buzzing with the atmosphere, crowding into the restaurants in the Piazza Bra and swarming around the amphitheatre, waiting for the show to start.
We took our places in one of the lower tiers of the Arena. Had we been higher up, we’d have been sitting on the original stone seats (you can hire cushions to make them more comfortable). Everyone was given a candle as they entered: the sun was setting and the Arena flickered with thousands of tiny lights.
It felt as if we were part of a long tradition. This is one of the largest Roman amphitheatres in the world, built in AD 30 to accommodate 30,000 people. The Arena continued to host events after the Roman Empire crumbled and even after much of the outer ring was destroyed by an earthquake in 1117. In the Middle Ages there were tournaments and jousting, and (equally popular) public events such as trials and executions. And today crowds are drawn to the rock and pop concerts as well as to the world famous Opera Festival.
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A Magnificent Spectacle
The lights go down, a woman bangs a gong, and the performance is about to begin. All eyes are focused on the stage. This is a magnificent spectacle. Of course the Arena itself is awe-inspiring, but the scenery and the lighting are equally stunning. And the music is pretty good too. Over the hundred or so years of the Festival’s existence it has featured a whole host of big names, including the legendary Maria Callas who made her debut here in 1947. In my opinion the setting works better for some operas than others. Aida is a perennial favourite, its big crowd scenes and choruses filling the stadium. But more intimate operas with fewer characters, or those which do not suit such lavish scenery, are in danger of being dwarfed by their surroundings.
And you do take your chances with the weather. Last time I went the evenings were cold and I wished I’d packed some warmer clothes. This time it was much hotter… until it started to rain. The first drops appeared just as Tosca was about to begin and the orchestra trooped off (water can damage the instruments). They returned and played a few minutes before leaving again. People appeared as if from nowhere to sell umbrellas and rain capes and it looked for a while as if the performance would be abandoned (and, no, you don’t get your money back if the opera doesn’t run to the end). But we were lucky: the rain stopped and the show went on.
For me it was all part of the experience. I watched the lightning forking across the dark sky above the Arena, a spectacular sight in itself. I thought that it must have been much the same when the Romans were here. Some things haven’t changed much since then.