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The Arena

A century of drama crowns the titillations of antiquity

by Elizabeth Willoughby

"What we do in life echoes in eternity." So says General Maximus in the Ridley Scott film Gladiator (2000). It's a poignant thought, standing in Verona's Arena, the largest, best preserved open-air amphitheatre in the world.

Two thousand years ago in this very place, men were battling for their lives, for glory and for the amusement of an audience. Staring down from the stone steps on a sultry midsummer afternoon, it's easy to visualize the gruesome events, man against man, man against beast. Tonight, though, the audience will watch a different sort of battle – woman against hypocrisy, in the form of an opera. This, too, will end with a death.

The Arena

These days, over half a million people converge on this lively city in northern Italy each summer. Verona is a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its historical architecture, which has been seamlessly combined with modern living. Narrow cobblestone streets are lined with marble sidewalks worn down over ages. Greenery pours down from stone balconies of aged buildings that have been converted into apartments above and chic boutiques below. Besides the old bridges, castles, towers and gates, windows built into the ground provide views of excavated Roman remains and archaeological ruins. Still standing in the historical centre is the Arena, where the world renowned Verona Opera Festival is held. Running for three months (mid-June into September), it draws opera-lovers from across Europe and beyond due to the revered theatre's penetrating, enduring atmosphere and connection to the past.

The Arena
In the beginning, citizens came to watch combat between gladiators fitted with specific weaponry, such as a Thracian suit of bent shield and curved sword against a Mirmillo's flat shield and short sword, or a Retiarius with trident and net against a Secutor's sword and casque helmet. Crowds came for sacrificial celebrations, public executions, and to watch trials of justice force an accused to retrieve objects from boiling water or carry burning iron to test for innocence. The Middle Ages brought burnings at the stake to the Arena and the Renaissance brought jousting tournaments.

It wasn't until the 18th century that theatrical performances finally found this stage. The first play on record to have been performed here was Merope by Francesco Scipione Maffei in 1713. Two hundred years later, in 1913, the opera festival was founded.

This evening, under a mild breeze, the twilight sky sputters its last glowing rays over the ancient city as opera goers flow past millennia-old stone pillars and archways of the venerable structure. Like blood pulsing through veins towards the heart, hundreds stream steadily along the curving ambulatories, up stairways and into rows of tiered seating. Ushers, seat-cushion renters and libretto vendors circulate through the sectors as darkness gently descends and a mosaic of candles lights up the stands. At nine o'clock, the players enter the stage and the performance begins.

The Arena

Tonight's opera was first performed in 1853 at Teatro La Fenice in Venice. Giuseppe Verdi's original La Traviata (The Fallen Woman) started with Violetta lying sick in bed, then flashes back through the courtesan's high society Parisian parties, consumption and love sacrificed. It was a daring tale to tell at the time, since it was based on a real woman and because it was about prostitution and hypocrisy. Many in the audience would have recognised themselves.

"Nowadays, the original impact has almost completely disappeared," says director Graham Vick. To recover some of the force and to strengthen the idea of contemporary, he gave it a modern twist. "Ours is a society that loves celebrity, in which everybody wants to be famous, even if for only two minutes." Vick changed the character of Violetta from a poor girl of the mid-19th century to a modern day icon like Marilyn Monroe, and his opening scene is a graveside tribute to Violetta reminiscent of the public anguish expressed after Princess Diana's death in 1997.

With eyes closed to the new and spectacular visuals, the timelessness of the Arena returns. The exquisite acoustics of the amphitheatre betray even the sound of the soprano drawing in breath, evoking a sense of intimacy with the artist in this epic atmosphere under the stars.

Songs of love, loss and betrayal are followed, in true operatic convention, with the heroine redeeming herself through death. The audience flows back out into the piazza, touched by the experience of the opera in this immortal setting, feeling connected to the theatre's antiquity that is still echoing towards eternity.

The Arena

Images: Gianfranco Fainello, © Fondazione Arena di Verona.

This article was published in the Sunday News, Brazil ©Elizabeth Willoughby 2005 and at ©WorldGuide.eu 2013

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