We are in the heart of the city of Verona and as dusk settles, the excitement around the Arena is palpable. We climb uneven stone steps radiating the heat of the day and enter through one of the many openings that dot its circumference, finding ourselves on the threshold of another world. The cheap seats (the original stone steps of the Roman Amphitheatre) are full and we just manage to squeeze on the end of a row. This stunning intact amphitheatre built around 30 AD is still very much in use today and is internationally renowned for its large-scale opera performances. These stones have seen everything from gladiator games to One Direction concerts, medieval jousts to Puccini operas. With its colourful palimpsest of history, to visit the Arena and experience one of Verdi’s epic Opera’s, Aida, with our dear friends Elaine and Phil (who are in Verona for a weeks holiday), is a real privilege, ‘a once in a lifetime experience’ and something which has been on my ‘Bucket List’ for quite some time.
Waiting for Aida to begin
The Arena, made from pink and white stone from nearby Valpolicella, originally had three tiers of arches running along its border and its elliptical shape provides for excellent acoustics. Entertaining more than 20,000 people in its heyday, it was a complex and demanding entertainment industry. Powered by the labour of hundreds of slaves in underground tunnels, grandiose stage sets would have been erected in the central space, just like tonight. Roman citizens teemed through its gates to witness processions, circus acts, dancing and music, but their favourite was blood sports. Fierce wild animals from faraway places were brought to be hunted, condemned prisoners were executed in bloody and inventive ways, but the gladiator show, where two trained combatants would fight one another to the death, was the feature presentation of the evening.
Tonight, we are here to see Aida, Giuseppe Verdi’s epic (4 hour long) Opera. Aida first debuted at the Cairo Opera House, in 1886, and since then has been performed well over 100 times around the world. The production in Verona’s Arena hails to be the most dramatic and atmospheric. The first act is set in Egypt, the Arena shimmers and glows and the yellow moon rises in the night sky. To alert the audience of the impending Opera a gong is struck on three occasions by one of the cast members. The anticipation builds. As the orchestra tunes up, the conductor is greeted with typical Italian enthusiasm, ‘bravo maestro’ filling the air, and then it begins…
The set of Aida, excited and on the cheap seat with our friends
The Egyptians are at war with Ethiopia. Aida, an Ethiopian princess has been captured and made slave to Amneris, the King of Egypt’s daughter. But Aida and Radames, a young Egyptian soldier, have fallen in love. The relationship is doomed from the start, as Amneris also has her eye on Radames. The love triangle ends badly for Radames, who is buried alive in a tomb beneath the temple as punishment for treason. Radames last thoughts are for Aida, who suddenly appears in the grave, having slipped in earlier to share his fate. An Egyptian Romeo and Juliet ensues and let’s just say it doesn’t end well for them both. Listening with my eyes shut as the Bel Canto vibrato resonates around the Arena I am transported into the tragic story of Aida and her love for Radames. One must pause to consider that there is no amplification – no microphones, no sound system – just the singers and the orchestra…. simply stunning.
If you do get the opportunity to experience Verona’s Opera, don’t forget to pick up and light your free candle, a celebration of times when the Arena had no electricity and the candles lit up the scenery. And if you are in the cheap seats (starting at 25 Euros up to 195 for the ‘defiantly not cheap seats’), cushions are available to rent (we missed that treat), or better still bring your own.
As we exit its past midnight, the black starry sky frames the Arena and the night is still warm. Beyond lies the beautiful, historic city of Verona, where Romeo and Juliet loved and lost. The spectacle and music of Verdi’s opera, the atmosphere in the arena and the connection to those who sat where I sat almost 2,00 years before me…… this has been a truly enchanting evening and a night I will remember for many, many years to come.