A Night at the Opera in Verona

by Bob & Nancy Bestor

We spent a week in Verona this past summer, and of the many sites and events on our must-do list, I was most looking forward to seeing the opera Aida at the outdoor Roman arena. The amphitheatre, built in AD 30, seats more than 15,000 people.

We had tickets for the cheap seats (about $28 euros each), packed in shoulder to shoulder with others right on the stone benches of the amphitheatre. The arena was full, with well-to-do opera aficionados on the red-carpeted floor of the amphitheatre, dressed to the nines, and the riff raff, sitting in shorts and other casual clothes, filling the benches all the way to the top around the arena. After being herded into the low price section like cattle, we settled in to our not so comfortable “seats” to await the start of the 9:15 evening show. At the last minute, Sarah and I had to bail out on the show, but Bob and Emily remained. This is their story. ~ Nancy

Let’s just say that my musical tastes lean a little less…..cultured. With virtually no prior opera experience we had done our homework and knew two important things: Aida dies in the end and the opera is four acts long.

But even our untrained ears, from the very first notes, knew that this was a special performance. First off remember that the venue is an outdoor two-thousand-year-old stadium that seats 15,000. Yet the opera was performed without the aid of a modern sound system. No microphones, no speakers, no megaphones, no pre-recorded music, etc. And yet there we sat, well into the cheap seats dozens of rows up, and both the orchestra and the singers came through clear as a bell.

The rest of this lavish production was also superb. Wonderful costumes, fabulous dancers, larger than life sets, live animals, a huge cast, the black tie crowd and ancient venue itself, filled to the brim with an appreciative audience. We felt fortunate to be a part of it.

We were enjoying ourselves quite a bit when after about 35 minutes, at the end of a particularly rousing song, the entire stadium went dark for several minutes and the stage was almost entirely reset. Two things crossed my mind. “This is a great show,” and “one act down, three to go”.

Another 40 minutes passed with big voices, lithe dancers and a sublime orchestra and then it was time for a true break. “Ladies and gentlemen, this intermission will be approximately 20 minutes” came over the PA system. Emily and I stood. We stretched. We agreed that two-thousand-year-old stone seating is uncomfortable. We also agreed that we really had no idea what was going on in the story but that we were both excited for the last two acts.

The next act began and what had already seemed like a tremendously grand production amazingly shifted into an even higher gear. More singers, more dancers, more musicians and more of everything else.

Soon it was time for another break. Once again the entire place went dark for several minutes. Once again the entire set was changed. It was time for the coup de grace.

This time it started big and only got bigger. 15,000 audience members sat rapt as the cast grew ever larger and the production became even more intensely passionate. At one point I counted nearly 400 cast members and musicians on stage. There were three-dozen centurions standing guard along the top row of the arena. Two-dozen more joined them at attention about ten rows down. A 40-piece brass section had joined the proceedings along with two huge choruses of about 50 singers, which each stood on either side of the stage. Four horses, which led out a procession of even more performers, bowed in unison at the foot of the stage and continued to prance about as the show headed toward the finale. It was an awe-inspiring spectacle and very fun in an “I can’t believe what I’m seeing” kind of way.

And then it came. The lights went down briefly and then came back up on the eight or so principal performers. They all held hands, basked in the audience’s enthusiastic applause and bowed deeply. Then, still holding hands, they walked ever so slowly towards stage right. There they repeated their bows. Then they all made their way back again to center stage for more applause and more bows. Soon it was the audience stage left who were treated to a close-up with yet more applause and bows. And finally it was back to center stage, slowly of course, for recognition of the orchestra and its conductor and one last deep and long, full-cast bow. The lights went out one last time. It was a great two-and-a-half hour show.

Before the lights came back up (at 11:45 pm) I asked Emily if she wanted to beat the traffic, and she did. We popped out of our seats, zipped down an aisle and were soon headed back down the ancient steps and out of the arena well before the rest of the crowd when we heard the following announcement, “Ladies and gentlemen, this intermission will be approximately 20 minutes”.

Notes:

  • The Verona Arena hosts the opera from mid June until early September. This year they ran seven different operas, including Aida, Carmen, and Romeo and Juliette.
  • Tickets often sell out, so buy in advance via their website, http://www.arena.it/. We bought from the US and picked up our tickets at will call, the day of the performance. Will call closes an hour before the performance begins.
  • You can take a tour of the arena in the daytime. Although it was interesting to walk through the tunnels without crowds, seeing an opera at night is the way to go. If you have tickets for the opera, you can skip the daytime tour.
  • If you have to use the bathroom before the opera begins, I’d recommend bringing a camera. The public bathrooms are right where the cast is prepping. It was hilarious to see members of the opera, dressed in full gladiator and other Egyptian costume, smoking cigarettes and talking on their cell phones. This might be what the employee underground of Disneyland is like. If so, I NEVER WANT TO SEE IT.
  • If you’re sitting in the cheap seats, bring a seat cushion, ideally one with a back, as you do not have anything to lean against, except the ankles of the person sitting above you.
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