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PDX OPERAbeat | A Company Blog is the blog for all things Portland Opera, featuring a variety of guest contributors who will provide insider's tidbits on all we do to celebrate the beauty and breadth of opera.

Un Viaggo Operatico in Italia- Atto VI (An Operatic Journey in Italy- Act VI)

July 8-10

Three opera performances at the Arena di Verona were the grand finale to our trip. The arena dates back to 30 AD, when it was used for spectacles and sporting events. It seats approximately 15,000 spectators:

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Here's a group photo in front of the orchestra pit. The set for The Barber of Seville is on stage. I assume the enormous roses are a reference to Rosina (the lead female character), and they were quite beautiful under stage light:

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Enjoying a glass of prosecco with George and Lee Anne Carter, as the crowd starts to file in:

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The word "spectator" is apt in this arena - one feels less like a member of a typical opera audience, and more like a spectator and participant in some enormous, grand event. Attending The Barber of Seville on Friday night made this abundantly clear. The overture featured at least 100 dancers in 18th century dress moving about the stage in a series of tableaus and choreographed sequences.

Throughout the performance, an endless number of dancers, servants, mimes, gymnasts, soldiers, etc, appeared in the large areas stage right and left - dancing, miming, posing, etc, while the story of the Barber of Seville happened to be taking place center stage. Here's a photo from the performance:

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All of us agreed that Barber was a very odd choice for a venue this size, because of the intimacy of the opera itself. There are only six main characters in Barber, and the chorus (who rarely appear) is typically 12 to 16 singers. The opera never really stood a chance in this cavernous venue, and the soloists had to compete with a parade of "extras" all evening (almost all of whom had no bearing on the plot whatsoever).

The next evening we saw Nabucco, another great early Verdi opera (like Attila at La Scala), and a much more appropriate piece for a venue of this size. Nabucco is a grand biblical opera, told on a grand scale, and the huge choruses of Hebrews, Babylonians, armies, etc, are a crucial part of the opera. Indeed, while there are five leading roles in Nabucco, the chorus is essentially the main character of the opera. Here's a photo from Act II:

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I mentioned the chorus "Va Pensiero" in my third entry for this blog, referring to it's popularity and deep significance in Italian history. The performance of this chorus was quite beautifully sung, and a highlight of the evening. Afterwards the applause was thunderous, as were the calls of "Bis".  Sure enough, the chorus was repeated!  It's the first time in many years that I've experienced an encore during an opera performance.

Our final performance at Arena di Verona was Verdi's Aida. This is the opera most associated with the venue, primarily because of the enormous size of the procession during the Act II triumphal scene. And this production did not disappoint. Here are two photos of that scene, which barely capture its size and scale:

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My guess is that there were close to 1,500 people on stage (soloists, chorus, dancers, children, supernumeries, animal handlers, etc) for this scene - incredible!

As it turns out, a hail storm descended upon Verona during the last act of the Aida performance. It happened during the scene when the priests are condemning Radames for betraying his people. Judgment truly came from on high for poor Radames that night! But it must have been the first performance in history that had a happy ending - Aida and Radames were never condemned to death! The lovers lived! Bravi!

A patron, while speaking about attending an opera in this famous arena, said to me,"this really isn't about the music, is it?" I had to agree with him.

Attending an opera in the arena is not unlike the opening ceremonies of the Olympics, or the half-time show at the Super Bowl, etc. It's much more about the "experience"  of being there, then the actual opera itsef - being outside, viewing the immense size of the ancient ruins, enjoying a drink, and perhaps a chat - all  while the opera is taking place. This is not unlike how opera was occasionally experienced during the 18th century - patrons might enjoy a full meal in their opera box, and come and go throughout the performance.  

Also, there are no surtitles. A woman sitting a few rows behind me was audibly explaining the plot of The Barber of Seville to her son, scene by scene - perhaps it was his first opera, and she wanted to make sure he knew what was happening. While the audience was mostly attentive, one could hear occasional chatter throughout the evening.

And although there were announcements to not use cameras (the performance photos I've posted in this blog were found online), the flash bulbs were popping non-stop during long stretches of each performance - how could the average tourist resist with such spectacle?

The question is how does one concentrate on the singing or staging or story in such an environment? But I don't think that is the point of seeing opera at the Arena di Verona...

That said, a very good time was truly had by all, and it was fun trying to guess the number of bodies on stage, or how they were able to have the Babylonian temple explode during Nabucco, or what the spectacular live fire works at the end of The Barber of Seville (no kidding) had to do with the opera, or if they had four white horses on stage for Aida, why couldn't they have elephants too, or...?

We all had a great time together on this "Viaggio Operatico in Italia", and more than one patron commented on how quickly the time flew by.  Here's a photo of us having a final toast together at the hotel in Verona:

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This was a very special group of travelers. I'm grateful to have made new friends, and to have deepened friendships that have been built over the years - all based on a common love of opera!   

And now, back to the great Northwest, back to the office, back to the great Portland Opera!

Ciao cari amici,