When opera was born, in Florence around 1600, no one could have imagined that it might develop from its intimate courtly origins into the kind of mammoth public spectacle that, three centuries later, would fill the ancient Roman arena in Verona only 150 miles away. But for the past 103 years – save understandable hiatuses during the two world wars – the Arena di Verona has been home to a summer festival that presents the drama and emotion of opera on an unprecedented scale. In a city where, like Milan, the evening passegiata is as much about turning heads, what could be more natural?
The arena’s limestone walls, dating back to 30AD, have seen gladiators duel, knights joust and heretics burn. In more recent times, the arena has hosted riding competitions, circus displays and pop concerts. The third largest Roman arena in Italy, with a capacity of 15,500, it is also effectively the largest opera house in the world.
The Arena di Verona Opera Festival began when the tenor Giovanni Zenatello, conductor Tullio Serafin and friends gathered at a restaurant in the city’s Piazza Bra. While discussing how to mark the centenary in 1913 of Verdi’s birth, Zenatello apparently pointed to the nearby arena and declared that this had to be the venue for the celebrations.
The first festival opened on August 10, 1913, with eight performances of Aida – Zenatello himself took the role of Radames. Aida has become the work closest to the festival’s heart, with more than 50 productions to date and two contrasting productions to appear this summer alone.
Among the vocal talent that has put Verona on the operatic map are Giuseppe di Stefano, Montserrat Caballe, Carlo Bergonzi, and Placido Domingo. In 1947, the 23-year-old Maria Callas made her first appearance in Verona, singing the title role in Ponchielli’s La Gioconda; it was on her second day in the city that she met the industrialist Giovanni Battista Meneghini, whom she later married (before abandoning him for the shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis).
With a theatre of such dimensions, the architecture itself plays a theatrical role, and there’s no apology for larger-than-life stagings. As the Verona Arena Foundation’s general manager, Giuliano Polo, explains: “This is the largest open-air stage in the world and we must take this into account when we programme each festival. We have to plan operas that have a large number of chorus members, and we add extras and ballet dancers to create a great spectacle. This is what our audience is looking for – they want to see big productions. For a typical production, we might have 150 chorus members and around 200 extras, maybe more. For the Triumphal March of Aida, you could expect to see 500 people on stage.”
The programming may necessarily tend towards the blockbuster crowd-pleasers – Don Giovanni, Carmen, Turandot and Tosca are regulars, along with the Verdi favourites of Aida, Il trovatore and La Traviata – but artistic goals are high, with principal voices drawn internationally as well as from Italy. Since first appearing at the Verona festival in 1995 with Carmen, Franco Zeffirelli has directed five new productions there – most recently Don Giovanni in 2015 – and the roll call of conductors includes Riccardo Muti, Lorin Maazel, Zubin Mehta and the late Georges Pretre.
1. The surface area of the Arena di Verona’s stage is three times the size the stage of a normal indoor theatre: 47 metres by 28 metres, excluding the wings.
2. Since 1975, the Verona Arena Foundation has promoted a season in the nearby Teatro Filarmonico, with opera and symphony concerts, and also tours both in Italy and abroad.
3. Before the start of each opera performance at the Arena, candles are lit by the audience, an atmospheric tradition that began in Verona and has spread to other open-air theatres, highlighting the arena’s characteristic as a theatre under the stars.
4. This year marks 70 years since the Verona debuts of two of the most famous sopranos: Maria Callas and Renata Tebaldi.
5. Giuseppe Verdi is the most featured composer in the festival’s history, with 650 performances of Aida alone.
According to Polo, 50% of the audience comes from Italy, while 30% visit from the German-speaking countries of Germany, Austria and Switzerland.
The scale may be liberating, but there are challenges too. “While the productions need to be large enough to fill the space, you don’t want to put too much in there,” says Polo. “There’s also the question of managing large groups of artists – there are so many more people to direct than is usual.” And this is before you consider dressing rooms, storage for scenery (often placed outside the arena itself) and toilet facilities for several thousand visits during the interval.
Israeli conductor Daniel Oren, a regular at the Arena di Verona festival, has described the challenges of marshalling the spatially disparate musical forces. “The soloists, chorus and offstage musicians can be very distant, and the positioning of the orchestra is frightful. The trombones are out on a limb and the harps are 50 metres away. If you try to conduct as if you were in an indoor theatre, you are doomed.”
Acoustically, the arena is widely praised, though in 2011 a sound reinforcement system was introduced to improve the sound, especially in the upper terraces. “We do not have amplification,” stresses Polo. “We have a solution that gives some support to the orchestra, but not the chorus and not the singers.”
One of the less predictable factors affecting the festival is Verona’s weather, with summer storms commonplace. Performances are never cancelled beforehand, but the start could be delayed for up to two and a half hours. While the Town Hall has this year announced the winner of a competition to design a retractable 12,000 sq metre membrane cover for the arena, Polo clearly believes this not to be appropriate for the festival. “As an opera theatre, we are not convinced it will help – this is a first-century AD monument. We are not looking for a roof, and if a roof is built we wouldn’t use it. It would be detrimental to the experience to hear the rain falling on its surface, and it would take away from the magical setting, the atmosphere of our performances.”
Opera companies across Italy have been in a precarious position in recent years, following cuts in government spending and a more recent initiative of offering government loans in return for financial restructuring. Though a 2013 analysis of accounts by the Ministry for Cultural Affairs showed the Verona Arena Foundation in relatively good shape (showing a profit of just under €400,000, as opposed to the Opera di Roma’s €13 million deficit), it was put into liquidation last April after it failed to reach cost-cutting agreements with workers’ unions. Currently operating under special commissioner Carlo Fuortes, who appointed Polo as general manager last November, the company is soon to appoint a board of directors and an artistic director.
Meanwhile, the 2017 season goes ahead, seemingly as normal, with six operas: a new production of Nabucco to open, and two productions of Aida (one featuring Violeta Urmana as Amneris), as well as Rigoletto, Zeffirelli’s Madama Butterfly, and Tosca.
“We are proud to present a new production this year, having not held one in recent years,” enthuses Polo. “We open with this production, Nabucco, which has a large, traditional setting, taking place in the Risorgimento period, the second half of the 19th century. This is a little bit different to what the audience might normally expect. It is striking too that we have two productions of Aida, one a historic production based on the original Aida staged here in 1913, and the other a modern conception created in 2013 by the Spanish theatre group Les Fura dels Baus for the festival’s centenary.”
It wouldn’t be opera if there weren’t a little tragedy beneath the surface but, in true showbusiness manner, the outward spectacle of the Arena di Verona Opera Festival would appear undiminished.
Number of performances: The Fondazione Arena di Verona organises around 50 performances in the Arena and 70 at the Teatro Filarmonico for the ‘winter’ season, as well as other performances in Italy and foreign tours.
Audience figures: The arena has a seating capacity of up to 13,500 spectators. The opera festival hosts around 400,000 spectators per season
Number of performers and employees: During the festival, 1,200-1,500
Turnover: €45 million (2016)
Budget (2017): €22 million from the box office proceeds, €16 million from the public sector, €4.5 million from the private sector
Government funding (2017): Around €12.5 million
Key staff: Carlo Fuortes, special commissioner; Giuliano Polo, general manager; Francesca Tartarotti, operations director
The Arena di Verona Festival runs from June 23 to August 27