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Thursday, 18 July, 2002, 12:04 GMT 13:04 UK
Verona parties with Zeffirelli opera
Aida
A huge golden pyramid dominates the stage

Well over 500,000 opera fans will visit Verona this year.

The city of Romeo and Juliet is celebrating the 80th anniversary of its summer opera festival held in a first-century Roman amphitheatre in the city centre.

A production of Verdi's Aida, directed by film director Franco Zeffirelli, opened this year's season and will also close it on 1 September.

The opear was originally commissioned to celebrate the opening of the Suez Canal, and was also the first opera in modern times staged in Verona's ancient Roman arena.

bar staff
The arena seats 15,000 opera fans
This took place in August 1913, on the eve of World War I, when a famous Italian tenor called Giovanni Zenatello organised eight performances of Verdi's masterpiece to celebrate the centenary of the composer's birth.

Apart from two interruptions during World Wars I and II, the open air Verona opera has continued every summer since then, in the third largest Roman arena to have survived. (The others are the Colosseum in Roma and the arena in Capua, near Naples).

Centenary

This summer no fewer than 13 performances of Aida are being given. Tickets are also being snapped up for two other popular Verdi operas particularly adapted to the world's largest opera stage - Nabucco and Il Trovatore.

Other Verona opera favourites this year include Georges Bizet's Carmen and Giacomo Puccini's Turandot.

Last year during celebrations marking the centenary of Verdi's death in 1901, I saw what must have been one of the smallest productions ever of Aida.

Aida
Zeffirelli also designed the production
It was in a tiny court theatre in Bussetto, Verdi's home town near Parma, and also directed by Zeffirelli.

Zeffirelli managed to cram onto a tiny pocket handkerchief of a stage, statues of Egyptian gods, trumpeters, a cast and chorus of 60, not to mention a full orchestra under the stage.

Tomb figures

This mini-production was in complete contrast to Zeffirelli's Verona mega-version of the opera.

Here he fields a cast of hundreds, all dressed in accurate replicas of Egyptian costumes copied from tomb figures.

Zeffirelli decided to divide the chorus in two, placing singers on each side of the huge stage almost 80 metres apart.

A huge gilded metal pyramid flanked by sphinxes dominates the stage, placed at one end of the oval arena.

The audience sits where gladiators once fought to the death, and also around three sides of the tiered stone amphitheatre.

Aida
Italian ballerina Carla Fracci plays the priestess Akmen
As the sun sets and the theatre lights come on hundreds of tiny spots of light glimmer around the inside of the arena.

The lights come from pocket electric torches used by opera buffs to follow the words and music from a score.

Limitations

The acoustics are far from perfect, but there is no electronic boosting of sound, so singers are forced to project their voices.

"The singers have to know that in the arena it is never necessary to strain the voice to make oneself heard," said conductor Daniel Oren commented.

Oren, who has conducted 17 different operas over 13 seasons at Verona, disagrees with critics who say Verona operas are mere spectacle.

"You simply have to learn the limitations. The soloists, chorus and offstage musicians can be very distant and the positioning of the orchestra is frightful," he says.

"The trombones are out on a limb and the harps are 50 metres away. If you try and conduct as if you were in an indoor theatre, you are doomed."

See also:

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