Opera night at Arena, Verona
Carmen was the second opera to be performed in the Arena, in 1914, and by the end of the 2005 season they had done it 167 times, making it the second most often performed opera after Aida.
The really exciting thing for me about the Carmen performance I saw on August 22, 2006 was that Andrew Richards sang the lead tenor role of Don José. I didn't know this in advance, because he was called in at fairly short notice to replace a colleague who was ill. (Actually I could have known if I had looked at the updated cast list on www.arena.it that day, or if I had leafed through the local newspaper L'Arena.) Anyway he gave a fine performance and was loudly cheered at the end. I could hear him very clearly (not as loud as in an opera house, but clearly) from where I was sitting halfway up in section E, over a hundred meters from the stage.
Second photo: The first scene of Carmen.
Third photo: Unlike Aida, which had no animals, Zeffirelli's Carmen production does include several live horses, and after they had trotted across the front of the stage several times at the beginning of the fourth act they had quite naturally left some horseshit on the stage. If you enlarge this photo you can see four people: Ildiko Komlosi as Carmen, Andrew Richards as Don José and two men in peasant costumes sweeping up the horseshit. Just as Andrew was in the midst of his final impassioned plea to Carmen (before killing her) the two men finished sweeping and left the stage, to the cheers and bravos of the audience. (Somebody must have warned him about this, because he didn't miss a note.)
Sunday, August 10, 1913 was the hundredth birthday of the composer Giuseppe Verdi. For this occasion his opera Aida was performed in the Arena di Verona -- the first opera performance in this magnificent open-air venue.
By the end of the 2005 season they had performed Aida 484 times, and 16 more were scheduled for 2006, so that would make exactly 500 performances up to now.
But I'm told the 499th on August 24, 2006 was a disaster because it kept raining off and on throughout the first act. They kept starting and stopping and restarting until they had the first act finished, so they didn't have to give any refunds, and then sent everyone home soaking wet. (I was in Innsbruck that night, some 200 km further north, and we had torrential rains up there, too, but the opera in Innsbruck was fortunately indoors.)
The Aida performance I saw in Verona was only the 498th, on August 20, 2006, and on that evening the weather was fine. I had a jacket with me, just in case, but didn't have to put it in because even after midnight it was still warm enough for shirtsleeves.
I actually liked Zeffirelli's staging of Aida. (Shh! Don't tell any German or British stage directors I said that!) Of course there were hundreds of extra players in lavish costumes, but unlike some of his predecessors Zeffirelli did not have any water on the stage to represent the Nile (as in the 1953 production), and there were no elephants, horses or dromedaries this time, in fact no animals of any sort. But lots of dancers, which I found good, especially since they danced the entire Triumph March in the second act, making it seem less militaristic than it usually is.
Of course it was a bloated and bombastic production, and I don't think I would have liked in if I had seen it indoors, but in the vast open spaces of the Arena it was just right.
Don't believe the hype. This is an endurance test rather than a fantastic musical experience. What struck me most was that when the performance started I could barely hear it. Admittedly, I was in the unnumbered seats, but so are most people, and I was in one of the better positioned of these seats. It wasn't until the audience became absolutely quiet that I could make out the melody at all. On top of that it's impossible to make out the expressions on the performers face and it's difficult to tell which of the far away figures is actually singing. To experience the emotion of opera, you've got to be able to hear the power of the singers voices.
Is it that the arena was actually designed for the spectacle of gladiatorial combat and all that Ben Hur kind of thing rather than acoustics? Did the Romans do opera at all in here?
If you want opera to make the hair on the back of your neck stand up, see it in your local theatre in comfort.
On the other hand, the arena is one of the most fantastic places I've ever visited, but that was during the day when it was relatively empty of people and opera trappings. Then you can really appreciate the beauty and size of the place and feel the history of the arena. If you must experience the opera here, pay for the most expensive comfy seat near the stage where you can really hear and see the performers.
The Arena di Verona summer opera season for 2008 began on June 20 with a performance of Verdi's Aida and ended on August 31 with a performance of -- you guessed it -- Verdi's Aida.
All told, three of the six operas and 29 of the 50 scheduled performances for 2008 were by Giuseppe Verdi. There were fifteen performances of Aida, eight of Nabucco and six of Rigoletto.
The three non-Verdi operas on the program were Bizet's Carmen with twelve performances, Puccini's Tosca with seven and -- the big surprise -- two performances of Gounod's Roméo et Juliette, which they hadn't done in the Arena since 1977.
Theoretically, no one is allowed to take photos of any sort during an opera performance at the Arena di Verona.
Their website is very firm about this: "It is forbidden to take photographs, with or without a flash. Sound or video recording of any type is prohibited."
The Arena regulations also say: "Video cameras or any equipment for recording for the Internet or the cinema, or cameras even digital, or lasers are not allowed to be brought into or to be used in the amphitheatre. These items may be confiscated if found and could be kept for the duration of the performance."
When you get inside, though, the nice voices on the loudspeakers merely ask you in four languages (more politely in some than in others) not to use your flash.
But what actually happens as soon as the lights go down is that flashes start popping all over the arena, and they continue throughout the performance. Obviously I didn't spend the evenings counting flashes, but just as a rough estimate I would say there were maybe ten thousand flashes during the Aida performance, and several hundred during the others.
Purists might get upset about this, I suppose, but personally I find it more amusing than anything else. This is the 21st century, after all. Think of them as fireflies, if that helps.
My theory about these constant flashes is that at least half the people who own digital cameras have never read the manual and wouldn't know how to turn off the flash even if they wanted to. Also they have never stopped to think that a flash is useless when you are taking a photo of something over a hundred meters away, and may very well spoil your pictures by lighting up extraneous details in the foreground.
I have sometimes experimented by taking the same photo with and without the flash, and one ones without are nearly always better. The only exception is when you have a bright background and a dimly-lighted object in the foreground that you would like to brighten up. An example of this is the View from Schiller's Window photo on one of my Leipzig tips. In the non-flash version of that one the bust of Schiller in the foreground was barely visible.
And a flash is also useful for taking portrait photos of (consenting) people at night, for instance at VT-meetings. But not for taking long-distance photos in the world's largest opera venue!
Second and third photos: Of course I had my flash turned OFF when I took these photos of the ice cream girls. (Have I mentioned that you can buy ice cream in the Arena? Well, you can, LOL.)
The Arena regulations have this to say about the dress code: "The audience in the stalls and on the numbered seats on the steps are required to dress appropriately in the Arena."
They don't say what "appropriately" means.
I had heard rumors that these folks down in the expensive seats (Poltronissime) would dress up very formally, like in black suits and evening gowns, but as you can see from my photo this is not true. They are mainly wearing slacks and a shirt or blouse just like the rest of us, though I guess the percentage of white shirts is greater down there.
Some of them sensibly have sweaters or shawls over their shoulders, in case it starts getting cooler around midnight.
I did see one man wearing a tuxedo or some such (not on the photo), but I expect he felt overdressed.
The ushers downstairs wear snappy blue blazers, with blue and yellow ties for the men and scarves for the woman. This is to set them off from their colleagues up in the unreserved sections who just get a blue blouse or shirt to wear, with no tie or scarf.
Note that Gate 1 is fitted out with a red carpet and fancy red curtains, which is not the case for the gates leading to the upper sectors.
If you are sitting on the steps (reserved or unreserved), don't forget to pick up a candle from the large unmarked box in the middle of the gate where you go in. These are small candles like the ones used on birthday cakes, and each one is packed in a cellophane wrapper with a brief printed explanation in Italian, English and German.
According to this little printed folder, there was no electricity in the Arena when the first performance of Aida took place on August 10, 1913, so the spectators brought thousands of candles with them "to illuminate the scenery and read the programs". (I can't imagine how they could have illuminated such a huge stage using only candles, but never mind.)
This "great tradition of the candles" was almost forgotten for many years, but was resurrected in the 1980s by an Italian company named Vicenzi, which I believe makes cakes and pastries. Since then they have been providing candles for people sitting on the steps, and shortly before the performance begins we are all asked to light them. Most people poke a little hole in the paper folder, put the candle through the hole and hold it from below, so as not to get hot wax on their fingers.
Second photo: Here some of the people on the steps have started lighting their candles.
Third photo: And then the lights go out for the start of the performance.
Fourth photo: Same on another night, looking at the people in section D.
Fifth photo: And here's the same scene when the lights start to go dim. It really does create a great feeling with all those thousands of candles glowing in the darkness as the lights go down and the orchestra starts to play the overture.
Overall, this was the least satisfying of the three operas I saw at the Arena.
Not that it wasn't well done. The conductor, orchestra and chorus were excellent, as were the main singers. And I don't really have any major complaints about Zeffirelli's staging, except that the very small and private tragedy of Cio-Cio-San seemed about ten sizes too small for the huge venue of the Arena. The only really effective part was the famous humming chorus, which sounded awesome in that huge nighttime setting.
Speaking of the conductor, this was the first time I had ever seen her in action, and I must say she really lived up to her outstanding reputation. Keri-Lynn Wilson, from Canada, is the first and only woman who has ever conducted in the Arena, in all 84 years they have been doing operas here. That's why I chose to sit fairly far forward in section C, so I could see her from the side with my opera glass.
At the end there was an embarrassing moment when the singers were taking their bows. The usual ritual is that the leading soprano goes off to the side and welcomes the (male) conductor onto the stage. If it is a female conductor the leading tenor is supposed to do this, but women don't conduct very often in Italy so the tenor didn't remember to do it. (After a bit of confusion the soprano Daniela Dessi went and fetched her, even though that wasn't actually her responsibility.)
Second and third photos: Scenes from Madama Butterfly.
Fourth photo: On the morning of the performance, the Verona newspaper L'Arena carried an interview with Keri-Lynn Wilson, from which I learned among other things that she is married to Peter Gelb, the new General Manager of the New York Metropolitan Opera, and that she is "altissima, esilissima, blondissima" (the tallest, the most slender, the blondest) and looks more like a fashion model than an orchestra conductor. "Più che un direttore d'orchestra, sembra una modella uscita de qualche sfilata, quando si appresta a raggiungere il podio sotto gli occhi di migliaia de spettatori." To me she looked more like an orchestra conductor, but I was sitting fairly high up on the stone steps.
By the way, the newspaper's website has an L in it (www.larena.it) to distinguish is from the Arena's website (www.arena.it).
There were three intermissions during the Aida performance, two during Carmen and one during Madama Butterfly.
Before each intermission there is a ritual in which the singers take their bows from the center of the stage, them all walk over to the right side and bow again, then back to the center for more bows, and then the same on the left, which is where they finally exit.
When this ritual is over the floodlights go on and the air is immediately filled with eager young voices calling:
"Gelati! Ice Cream!"
One night some of the people behind me were annoyed at this, calling it a "Stilbruch" (they were Germans, obviously), but I find it just one more charming aspect of a night at the Arena.
Additional photos: Selling ice cream in the Arena.
Contrary to popular belief, there really are a few toilets in the Arena di Verona. But they are all at ground level, and are accessible in the evenings only to the people in the (expensive) reserved seats.
If you are sitting higher up on the unreserved stone steps, your only option is to leave the Arena and go out to the temporary toilets that have been set up out on one of the adjoining streets. Depending on where you are sitting, this could be quite time consuming, so if you think this might be a problem you might try to sit in section F, which is the closest one to the external toilets.
Logically enough, you have to take your ticket with you when you go out, so you can get back in.
Second photo: This photo, which I took during the daytime, shows the entrances to the toilets inside the Arena at ground level. The white signs say "Toiletta".
Third photo: Here's the entrance to the external toilets (of the Mediterranean squat-in variety) which have been set up on the street in front of Gate 59 (section F). I took this photo late at night after one of the performances, so I don't know how full these get during the intermissions.
On my second evening one of the young male ushers got into a heated argument with an older Italian woman who was sitting one row behind me.
Although I have never really learned Italian and don't normally understand it very well, in this case I was able to get the gist of the argument because they were speaking very loudly (right over my head) and because they both kept repeating themselves, which of course is very helpful for a foreign language learner.
He said (over and over) that she should move her bag to make room for one more person on the stone step next to her.
She said (over and over) that there was no need for that, because there were plenty of free seats further up.
He said (over and over) that it was still an hour before show time, and that thousands of people were still coming. (Which turned out to be true.)
She said (over and over) that one little bag wouldn't make any difference.
He said (over and over) that he had to enforce the regulations.
She said (over and over) that he shouldn't be so pedantic about the regulations.
He said (over and over) that it was his job to make sure everybody got a seat.
She said (over and over) that she wasn't going to move her bag and there wasn't anything he could do about.
And on and on, until eventually he gave up and left.
An Italian man sitting next to me felt sorry for the young usher and later struck up a conversation with him -- found out that he was a student who earned 700 Euros per month (not very much) by ushering six nights a week at the Arena during the summer.
On my first evening (Aida), sector D was already quite full when I got up there at about eight o'clock, an hour before show time. I was greeted by a young usher (the one in the blue blouse in the second photo) who asked everybody how many there were who wanted to sit together. Anyone who said three or four was sent off to the left and UP, where her colleague kept holding up different numbers of fingers to tell her how many free seats he had found.
When I said ONE she grinned and said she had a great seat for me, right close by in the second row. And there was indeed a free placed in the middle of that row, where an older Danish woman from the row before had thought she could lean against the stone wall because no one was sitting there.
So I found myself sitting next to a young German woman who was seeing her first opera ever. But she had done her homework -- read the story and listened to the recording with Placido Domingo as Ramades.
Her boyfriend was sitting right in front of her, so he could lean his back against her legs. At each intermission they changed places, so the other could have the benefit of a backrest. (Someone at home had advised them to do this.)
Second photo: An ice cream girl (in a yellow T-shirt) talking with an usher (in a blue blouse). From what I understood of their conversation, it had to do with the necessity of holding the ice cream box on or above her head part of the time so she could get through the crowds.
Third photo: One of several young black women selling ice cream in the Arena. In this photo the numbered seats are still empty, because they haven't even opened up those gates yet.
Fourth photo: One of the ice cream girls getting out of the way as the floodlights start to dim.
People think of opera as an event that you must dress up for. That is certainly true of the posh seats in the stalls, where at very least the men were wearing a jacket and tie, if not dinner jackets, and the ladies were in their best frocks. Up on the gradinata however, there is no need to dress up, dress for comfort for you will be there for hours. In addition to the essential cushion, take something to drink. The stones retain the heat of the sun, and it is surprising how thirsty you get. Different people report different things, but our bags were searched, and plastic bottles (NOT glass) were allowed. Yes, there are seller with drinks ice cream and snacks on the prowl before the performance and during the intervals, but the prices are high for their captive market.
Other essentials to take with you: -
Unless you know the opera well and can follow it in Italian, read the libretto before you go, and refresh your memory in the intervals – opera plots can be complex and hard to follow. If you want to follow it during the performance you will need a tiny pen-torch, or risk the wrath of those around you.
Don’t forget your camera – you will need a decent zoom lens and a very steady hand to get in close to the action, but it is worth it to look back on afterwards. And do turn the flash off – it won’t work at that distance, will wreck the exposure of your pictures, and will infuriate those around you!
Remember, the weather in Italy can change, and the mountains are not far away. Take a plastic mac or an umbrella just in case – if it rains, it will pour down, the performance will be cancelled (no refunds !), and you will be soaked before you get out of the arena.
The performances do not begin until 9:15 - after it gets dark - but the crowds gather earlier and Piazza Bra is full of life. The arena opens about two hours before the performance starts. For the more popular operas it is essential to arrive early if you do not have reserved seats, as the steps fill up quickly. For Aida, we arrived about an hour and a half before the start, and were directed to a tiny gap on the stones high up on the terrace – it was filling up quickly. Gioconda was much less crowded, and we could choose our own place, and even had room to stretch out. The seats in the stalls do not fill up very early, as they are all reserved.
Tickets for the Opera can be bought on the day from the ticket office close to the arena, but to be certain of getting in to the more popular performances I would advise you to buy them in advance. We bought our tickets over the internet from a website called verona.com who are travel agents based just a few streets away.
The tickets are also very expensive if you wish for comfort – typical prices for 2006 are142 euros for the best seats. However sitting on the stone terraces (gradinata) is much more reasonable (only 24.50 euros). Reserved seats on the steps are available online for 94 euros. Some performances are even more expensive, to see Tosca on Saturday 15th July 2006 will set you back 157 euros for the very best seats, but only 26.50 euros for a seat on the stone steps (sector E – only area available online)