Verona: Opera or Circus?

16 Sep

One of the questions people who aren’t great opera lovers ask me is whether I have been to the Arena at Verona, it being a place that they’ve heard of where opera is performed.  Up until now, I hadn’t.  While I’d never say it’s been a particular ambition to get there (as opposed to, say, La Scala or Salzburg), I’ve been mildly curious to see what it’s like.  is it a serious opera venue or, as I suspected, a circus.  Our holiday in Northern Italy involved a visit to Verona during the last week of the centenary festival and there seemed to be no reason not to satisfy my curiosity.  Never being one to do it by halves I went to the opera on both nights: to Roméo and Juliet on 4th September and Nabucco on 5th September.

In terms of seriousness, the programme for the Festival pretty amply demonstrated its capacity for drawing serious names.  John Osborne, Matthew Polenzano and Leo Nucci were singing in various performances of Traviata, Nucci was in Rigoletto with Aleksandra Kurzak, conducted by Domingo.  Domingo himself sang some performances of Nabucco and conducted some of Aida, together with a couple of galas.  Ambrogio Maestri was also Nabucco and Amonasro.  You could hear Violeta Urmana and Daniella Barcellona as Amneris.  How far these were lured by the prospect of this being a centenary year, I couldn’t say.  Moreover, some of these were only doing two or three performances of what might have been a run of 13 or so performances.  Indeed, how seriously can you take an event which cannot field a consistent cast for five performances of Trovatore or six of Rigoletto taking place in the space of three or four weeks?  It struck me that there were relatively few evenings where the cast that you saw would be precisely the same as an earlier performance of the same work.

Then there is the whole question of the venue.  The arena is vast, seating I am told up to 15,000 people.  At the top, you must feel a long way from the action (though, judging by the visit I made when they were setting up the scenery, you should be able to hear adequately).  This puts a premium on size in almost every sense – in terms of voice, settings, orchestra, chorus and extras.  I don’t know whether all 160 people named in the chorus were on stage every night, but it certainly looked like it – and they take time to get on and off.  The productions were, it seemed to me to be largely about traffic policing.

You also expect an element of spectacle – and there were some good fireworks and collapsing temples in Nabucco, but the director’s attempt at this for Roméo et Juliette struck me as desperate – a huge flying machine to illustrate the Queen Mab episode, massive towers brought on to hold Juliet prisoner or to emphasise the Duke and Capulet’s power.  Most ludicrously of all, Friar Laurence’s cell appeared to be a broken, technicolour Tiffany lamp which exuded smoke as he discussed the potion for Juliet.  At the end of Roméo’s aria, Juliet released a couple of doves from a cage – who proceeded to fly around the stage distractingly as the evening went on.   It feels more like a circus.

And then there is the audience.  It was quite thin in the expensive seats for Roméo, but was very respectable indeed for Nabucco.  The cheap €20 seats at the back were packed for both.  However, I sensed that this was not an audience made up of opera lovers.  Clearly there were some, but there were others who patently were there because it was there and were bored rigid, played with their mobile phones, texted with little suggestion that other people might actually be interested in what was going on.  It is, apparently, ok to whisper throughout to your partner and to ignore the pleas for no flash photography.  It reminded me of the reasons why I don’t go to the Globe Theatre in London – it doesn’t really matter how good the performance is, the audience will wreck it for you.

So how good were the performances?  I thought that both were, on a musical level at least, pretty decent.  For Roméo, we had Maria Rebeka as Juliet.  I was greatly taken by her – she has a voice that retains its sweetness even this auditorium and which she uses with a real sense of style.  Her arias were really well done, particularly as the evening went on.  Her Roméo was Francesco Demuro – slightly tested by having to sing out too much but who nevertheless gave a lot of pleasure.  Their duet at the end was really moving.  Nobody else really struck me as interesting but Marko Letonja, conducting, seemed to have the forces well under control (this was the second performance of only three) and led an idiomatic performance almost making you forget that this venue really is far too large for the piece.

In Nabucco, Tiziana Caruso made a fearsome and hugely impressive Abigaille and Marco Vratogna struck me as a very respectable Nabucco.  Again, nobody else made much of an impression. Julian Kovatchev conducted well, though I longed for slightly faster, more fiery tempi – I think that, in this theatre, the space that it might just sound a scramble if he did.  The chorus did Va Pensiero very nicely and, to nobody’s surprise, it was encored.

Visually, the Gounod struck me as pretty daft with a director desperate to stop the audience getting bored.  When he actually allowed the singers to stand still, it actually worked (and the show warmed up into something actually rather enjoyable).  The Nabucco was much more traditional and there were moments – the finale of the first Act, Abigaille’s and Nabucco’s arias – where you actually felt that there was something interesting going on simply by allowing you to listen to the music.

I’m glad I went and also that I saw both operas – one traditional Verona fare, the other less so.  Ultimately, there was enough that was serious about putting on a performance of a decent standard to overcome the circus elements.

I wouldn’t go again, but I’d still recommend anyone to go for at least one performance.  If you do, it might be worth bearing in mind the following advice:

  • The more expensive seats are the ones to go for and try to be as near to the stage as you can – if only to be amused by watching individual chorus members not really taking it seriously;
  • Probably aim for traditional Verdi rather than one of the more intimate pieces;
  • If you sit in the side seats there is frequently an echo;
  • TAKE A CUSHION – even those seats that are not on the original marble are horrendously uncomfortable (this may not be true for the most expensive seats);
  • Be prepared for it to finish at about half past midnight – they  managed to eke out Nabucco to this length by having three 20 minute intervals;
  • You can feel free to ignore the advice about formal dress in the stalls, at least in the last week – hardly anyone seemed to be wearing it at either performance; and
  • Go with reasonably low expectations and you might be pleasantly surprised; and
  • In any event, Verona is a lovely place for a visit.
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