Operas in the Arena

On my visit to Verona in August 2006 I saw three open-air opera performances in the Arena: Verdi’s Aida, Bizet’s Carmen and Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. What they had in common was that all three productions were by the same stage director, Franco Zeffirelli (1923-2019), who also designed the stage sets for all three.

Zeffirelli has a reputation for being spectacular and sentimental. He is very popular with some audiences, but serious opera critics tend to pan his productions, calling them “sprawling” and “grotesquely overdone”. He is often accused of creating “operatic excess” using “monumental sets and glitter”. He likes to have his huge stage sets filled with hundreds of lavishly costumed supernumeraries (extra players) and dancers, in addition to the opera singers and a large chorus. Obviously he prefers to work at large opera venues where money is no object, such as the New York Met, the Vienna State Opera and London’s Covent Garden — and of course at the massive Arena di Verona.

Since the Arena is such an ideal venue for his kind of staging, the only surprising thing is that he didn’t start earlier. His first opera production at the Arena wasn’t until 1995. That was his Carmen production, which is the same one I saw in 2006.

Juliet’s house, balcony and bed

Besides staging operas at the Arena, Zeffirelli also has another connection with Verona, because in 1968 he made a highly successful film version of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. At “Juliet’s House” in Verona you can see her original, absolutely genuine bed. No, not the bed that anybody by that name might have used in the fourteenth century, but the one used for the love scene in Zeffirelli’s film. (See my post Romeo’s Juliet in Verona.)

Zeffirelli’s stage set for Verdi’s Aida

Sunday, August 10, 1913 was the hundredth birthday of the composer Giuseppe Verdi. For this occasion his opera Aida was performed in the Arena di Verona — the first opera performance in this magnificent open-air venue.

By the end of the 2006 season they had performed Aida exactly 500 times in various productions. But I’m told the 499th on August 24, 2006 was a disaster because it kept raining off and on throughout the first act. They kept starting and stopping and restarting until they had the first act finished, so they didn’t have to give any refunds, and then sent everyone home soaking wet. (I was in Innsbruck that night, some 200 km further north, and we had torrential rains up there, too, but the opera in Innsbruck was fortunately indoors.)

The Aida performance I saw in Verona was only the 498th, on August 20, 2006, and on that evening the weather was fine. I had a jacket with me, just in case, but didn’t have to put it in because even after midnight it was still warm enough for shirtsleeves.

I actually liked Zeffirelli’s staging of Aida. (Shh! Don’t tell any German or British stage directors I said that!) Of course there were hundreds of extra players in lavish costumes, but unlike some of his predecessors Zeffirelli did not have any water on the stage to represent the Nile (as in the 1953 production), and there were no elephants, horses or dromedaries this time, in fact no animals of any sort. But lots of dancers, which I found good, especially since they danced the entire Triumph March in the second act, making it seem less militaristic than it usually is.

Of course it was a bloated and bombastic production, and I don’t think I would have liked in if I had seen it indoors, but in the vast open spaces of the Arena it was just right.

Zeffirelli’s stage set for Bizet’s Carmen

Carmen by Georges Bizet was the second opera to be performed in the Arena, in 1914, and by the end of the 2005 season they had done it 167 times, making it the second most often performed opera after Aida.

The first scene of Carmen

The really exciting thing for me about the Carmen performance I saw on August 22, 2006 was that Andrew Richards sang the lead tenor role of Don José. I didn’t know this in advance, because he was called in at fairly short notice to replace a colleague who was ill. (Actually I could have known if I had looked at the updated cast list on https://www.arena.it/ that day, or if I had leafed through the local newspaper L’Arena.)

Anyway, he gave a fine performance and was loudly cheered at the end. I could hear him very clearly (not as loud as in an opera house, but clearly) from where I was sitting halfway up in section E, over a hundred meters from the stage.

The final scene of Carmen

Unlike Aida, which had no animals, Zeffirelli’s Carmen production does include several live horses, and after they had trotted across the front of the stage several times at the beginning of the fourth act they had quite naturally left some droppings on the stage. In this photo there are four people: Ildiko Komlosi as Carmen, Andrew Richards as Don José and two men in peasant costumes sweeping up the manure. Just as Andrew was in the midst of his final impassioned plea to Carmen (before killing her) the two men finished sweeping and left the stage, to the cheers and bravos of the audience. (Somebody must have warned him about this, because he didn’t miss a note.)

Zeffirelli’s stage set for Puccini’s Madama Butterfly

Overall, Puccini’s Madama Butterfly was the least satisfying of the three operas I saw at the Arena.

Not that it wasn’t well done. The conductor, orchestra and chorus were excellent, as were the main singers. And I don’t really have any major complaints about Zeffirelli’s staging, except that the huge venue of the Arena seemed much too large for the small and private tragedy of Cio-Cio-San. The only really effective part was the famous humming chorus, which sounded awesome in that huge nighttime setting.

A scene from Madama Butterfly

Speaking of the conductor, this was the first time I had ever seen her in action, and I must say she really lived up to her outstanding reputation. Keri-Lynn Wilson, from Canada, was the first woman who had ever conducted in the Arena, in all 84 years they had been performing operas up to that time.

Another scene from Madama Butterfly

At the end there was an embarrassing moment when the singers were taking their bows. The usual ritual is that the leading soprano goes off to the side and welcomes the (male) conductor onto the stage. If it is a female conductor the leading tenor is supposed to do this, but women don’t conduct very often in Italy so the tenor didn’t remember to do it. After a bit of confusion the soprano Daniela Dessi went and fetched her, even though it wasn’t actually her responsibility.

The Verona newspaper L’Arena

On the morning of the performance, the Verona newspaper L’Arena carried an interview with Keri-Lynn Wilson, from which I learned among other things that she is married to Peter Gelb, the General Manager of the New York Metropolitan Opera, and that she is “altissima, esilissima, blondissima” (the tallest, the slenderest, the blondest) and looks more like a fashion model than an orchestra conductor. Più che un direttore d’orchestra, sembra una modella uscita de qualche sfilata, quando si appresta a raggiungere il podio sotto gli occhi di migliaia de spettatori.” (More than a conductor, she looks like a model coming out of some fashion show, when she is walking up to the podium before the eyes of thousands of spectators.)

To me she looked more like an orchestra conductor, but I was sitting fairly high up on the stone steps.

By the way, the newspaper’s website starts with an L (www.larena.it) to distinguish is from the Arena’s website (www.arena.it).

My photos in this post are from 2006. I revised the text in 2018 and 2019.

See more posts on Verona, Italy.
See more posts on open-air performances.

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