Princess Aida raised her hands in the air, voice sounding out as scores of dancers, soldiers and dancing soldiers framed her, their bright white gowns and hand-held torches blazing in the night.
Her voice climbed higher. The music grew louder. The passion was palpable as the sky exploded with flashes of purple light. The ominous heat lightening timed perfectly with the anguish of battle.
There seemed no better setting to see my first ever opera than the open-air amphitheater of the Verona Arena.
Though visitors flock to Verona to see Juliet’s famous, though false, balcony, Marco and I had come to Aida, the classic masterpiece composed by Giuseppe Verdi. It was a fitting introduction to opera.
The Verona Arena has a long history with Aida.
On a different warm summer night, this time in August 1913, Aida was chosen as the opera to revive the long-dormant Arena. With a grand set and elaborate staging in the Verona Arena, it made the Arena the biggest open-air lyrical theatre in the world. Nearly a century later (there were brief pauses during the World Wars) the tradition is still going strong, with operas regularly filling the 15,000 available seats in the outdoor Arena. While Vienna and Milan’s elegant opera houses maintain their elegant dress code as well as price tag, opera in the Verona Arena is available to all. Though cushioned floor seats can run hundreds of euro, stone seating tickets start at just 25 euro.
A city most known for its romance, that evening the atmosphere was more festive than romantic. Crowds waiting for the start of the opera filled the Piazza’s many cafés, taking part in the city’s vibrant cocktail culture.
With a gelato in one hand and a red and yellow patio pillow in the other I fulfilled the tourist stereotype as I explored the city, ogling the rich marble central street and the multi-colored houses in Piazza Erbe.
As we filed into the arena we were each given small white candles. The candles represented the first operas performed in the Arena when there was no electricity. They were used to illuminate the scenery and read the programs.
Now the small flames filled the Arena, growing brighter as the sky grew darker, and I began to understand the romance of the city. I was sitting upon the same large stones that cooled the behinds of ancient Romans and Veronese, listening to music with the same acoustics as when the structure was built in the 1st century. Acoustics that are so effective, not one singer used a microphone for the entire duration of the opera. Their voices rang out strong, even in the nosebleeds.
I could see why Aida is known as the “Queen” of the Arena. The stage was filled with hundreds of performers, dancers, singers and props. Knights filled multiple layers of the stadium-style stone seating, disappearing and reappearing from the ancient exits in the amphitheater.
In short, Aida is an Ethiopian princess who has become a slave to the princess of Egypt. An Egyptian General, Radames, is secretly in love with Aida, and she with him, but, the princess of Egypt loves Radames as well. Things go downhill from there.
Under the night sky, threatening with rolling clouds and heat lightening I watched as Radames saw his love, his Ethiopian princess Aida in the crypt alongside him. It was impossible to understand his words, but the pain in his voice was universal. “To die! So pure and lovely!” he called out as Aida expired in his arms.
Before the first note of Giuseppe Verdi’s masterpiece played, my opera knowledge started and finished with the experience of Julia Roberts and Richard Gere in Pretty Woman. “People’s reactions to opera the first time they see it is very dramatic,” he said, “They either love it or they hate it.”
Before that evening, I didn’t know which group I’d fall under, but as the opera came to a close I had my answer: a good show is a good show.
For information about the annual Verona summer opera festival visit www.arena.it/en
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