The setting is an ancient Roman amphitheater, built (according to one of the ushers) around 180 A.D. It holds over 20,000 people—and if an Italian composer is on the program and the weather is good, it will be quite full.
Vendors pass through before the start and during every intermission: wine, tonic water, binoculars, libretti, cushions, and programs (there is a free brochure that lists the starring roles, which the opera company mails with tickets on advance orders—but no free handout at the door).
The cheap seats are the ancient hard stone benches of the ancient arena, with minimal legroom and nothing to lean back against (unless there happens to be no one behind you).
Just as the announcement is made that the performance is about to begin, many of the Italians light candles. The conductor takes the stage to huge applause, and—just as dusk becomes dark—it's show time.
We saw Carmen, and our friend who speaks both Italian and French commented that the singers sang their French lines with thick Italian accents.
Opera here is almost a carnival. There's an enormous cast (probably at least 100, and then an orchestra of 50 or so), and in many of the scenes, most of them are on stage—riding real horses, driving real donkeys puling enormous wagons, enacting various tableaux on the front corners of the stage that mimic or amplify the main story, or complement it. As noted on the Arena's website, "Carmen with the spectacular stage design directed by Franco Zeffirelli which, since 1995, has been enthusiastically received."
In such a big theater, the sets have to be large. Props like wagons were larger-than-life, and set changes—that not only had to cover the sprawling stage but also had to withstand wind or rain—were slow and complex, with walls being nailed together during the intermissions.
In the cheaper seats, where we were, it feels like about a quarter-mile to the back of the stage; the performers are dim figures, whose actions are clear only with a look through the binoculars. Yet, at least for the principal singers, their voices carry clearly (though in some cases, not powerfully enough to have much impact all the way back in the far bleachers—and there were people well above and behind us, too).
One of the most charming parts of the atmosphere was the intimate connection the audience felt with its stars. After a good aria, it isn't just "Bravo," but "Bravo, Marina"—as if cheering on a local kid at a Little League game. And you can sometimes hear snatches of arias from various parts of the audience, especially up at the top of the wall, in the really cheap seats (stands, in some cases).
I'd have loved to see how the audience reacted at the end of the opera, but at 12:15 p.m., with our children falling asleep around us and another 20-minute intermission looming, our two families left after the third act.
Tickets range from 14 to 154 euros. http://www.arenadiverona.it, telephone (39) 045/800-5151.
Shel Horowitz, Editor of Global Travel Review and owner of FrugalFun.com, is the author of the e-book, The Penny-Pinching Hedonist: How to Live Like Royalty with a Peasant's Pocketbook, and the creator of the Ethical Business Pledge campaign.
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