Some months ago, we made arrangements with old friends from California to meet in Verona at the end of June. Since we are all opera fans, we also bought tickets to see Aida at the outdoor Arena.
The Arena, a Roman structure, has been used for outdoor theatrical productions since 1913. Aida was the first opera produced there, and it is still produced almost every year, although these days there is a whole summer season.
Aida, set in an imaginary version of ancient Egypt, premiered in a conventional opera house in Cairo 1871, and at La Scala, in Milan, the following year. But in many ways Aida was born to be seen outdoors. The opera is more spectacle than story, and the famous triumphal procession has the proverbial cast of thousands — soldiers, priests, musicians, dancing girls, and even live animals (4 horses in our production). If Verdi had been alive a few decade later, he’d have been orchestrating Cecil B DeMille.
The staging was very imaginative — some of the players carried torches up to the top of the Arena to create an arc of light above the action. No elephants, though. Apparently elephants featured in some pre-war productions, but they are rare these days. Everything about the production – the singing, the music, the set design – was magnificent. In truth, it’s hard to imagine a better production.
This was apparently not the first time I have seen Aida. Although I have no conscious memory of it, my mother took me to a live outdoor performance of the opera in New York City when I was a toddler. Who knows, maybe that early imprinting is why I’ve been a lifelong opera fan!
The Arena produces several different operas in repertory. The sets are huge, so they store them outside the Arena between productions, allowing you to walk around them and see them close up.
The following evening, we saw an outdoor production of The Tempest at a different Roman-era theater. The play had been shortened to a single act with a running time of just under two hours. They cut a bit too much, in my opinion – I missed the reconciliation between Prospero and his nefarious brother Antonio. But the actress who played both Ariel and Caliban was outstanding – it was the first time I had seen these two roles combined, and it worked surprisingly well. It was also the first time I had seen Caliban played by a woman, which softened the edges of a character often portrayed as a monster.
We have seen many productions of Shakespeare’s plays but had never seen a performance in Italian. While I could follow the action well enough, I missed the cadences of the original poetry. Obviously my Italian still needs work!
During the daytime, we checked out the city’s more traditional attractions. Verona was an important city in late Medieval and early Renaissance Italy, and the size of its churches, and the richness of its art, attest to that. The church of San Zeno, an early bishop and the city’s patron saint, features a Madonna by Mantegna, a late 15th C artist who was famous for creating a sense of three-dimensionality in his paintings. In this altarpiece, the implied light source for the painting matches the placement of the upper story church window – an effect that would be lost if the painting were ever moved to a museum.
An earlier fresco in the church left black space which seemed to have been intentionally designed for official graffiti. You can see several notations for earthquakes (terremoto in Italian) which fortunately didn’t do much damage. I also enjoyed the statue of San Zeno with a fish dangling from his crozier. I thought it might be an allusion to the bishop as an apostolic “fisher of men,” but apparently he really loved fishing and was often seen with a fishing pole at the nearby river.
The bronze doors on this church were also notable. In one of the scenes, depicting an exorcism, the priest is shown literally pulling a demon out of a young woman’s mouth.
The church of San Fermo is really two churches in one — something you see fairly frequently in Italy, where when someone wanted to build a new church they often built right on top of the old one. The lower church features some very rare 12th C Byzantine style frescoes, while the upper church features a Renaissance painting that has been mounted so as to reveal the 14th C frescoes underneath. In this one church, you can track the dramatic changes in artistic style that occurred during the 300 or so years ending with what we now call the Renaissance.
The church of Sant’Anastasia features two sculptures depicting common laborers, a rare tribute to the people who actually built these magnificent churches. Unusually, this church also has its original flooring, which used multi-color marble in geometric designs.
It was a wonderful if brief trip.