At the far edge of the sprawling Piazza Bra, behind the manicured garden area and adjacent to the row of canopy covered restaurants, rises the brilliant Roman Arena in Verona. Two stunning levels of pink and white limestone archways fan out across the pavement and up into the sky. At one end, a free standing wall shoots up above the main structure with a third level of arches indicating where the larger outer ring of porticoes once was. This awe-inspiring work of art, history and architecture is nearly 2,000 years old. It is one of the best preserved Roman arenas in the world. It’s so well preserved, in fact, that it’s still used today as a venue for performing arts.
Taking my seat in history
Every summer four operas are staged in the arena. I came to see Aida, the popular opera written by Giuseppe Verdi in 1871. I came as much to see the show as to experience the arena. Walking through one of the arched entrances, I couldn't help but think back to the toga-clad spectators who were doing the exact same thing 2,000 years ago. I got the sense that very little had changed, as I climbed the giant stone steps in the stark stairwell.
When I reached the top, I was reminded of the present by the bright red seat cushions for rent, a modern luxury added to lessen the discomfort of three hours perched atop stone bleachers. I walked through the gangway to the seating area. A well-organized team of ushers directed me towards an open space before I had a chance to soak in my surroundings. I weaved my way through the hands, feet and bags occupying the ancient stone steps that perform the multiple functions of aisles, stairways and seats.
I took my seat and looked around. The main floor has been fitted with plush chairs and carpeted walkways for the most expensive seats. At one end of the floor, there is a stage that utilizes the ground level gangways for performers to enter and exit. Perhaps these gangways were used by a different type of performer during Roman times. My mind wandered as I traced the marks and indentations in the well worn stone on which I was sitting. I was in awe thinking about the people who sat here, in the exact same spot, centuries ago.
A woman with long dark hair wearing an emerald green toga-style dress walked gracefully on stage. She carried a giant golden cymbal that hung like a shield in one hand, and a fur tip covered mallet in the other. She stopped at center stage and slowly banged on the cymbal harder and harder until it emitted a melodic but forceful call. The show was about to begin.
An illuminating tradition
A rustling noise, sounding like the opening of candy wrappers, took my attention away from the stage and onto the people around me. I saw that individually wrapped, birthday cake sized candles were being distributed to the audience. The accompanying pamphlet explained that when the first opera was staged in 1913, there was no electricity to light the stadium, so audience members brought thousands of candles to illuminate the stage. Though the tradition faded over the years, it was revived during the 1980s, and today, right before the show begins, candles are distributed.
Tiny, glowing dots slowly swept across the stands as flames were passed from one audience member to another. Then the house lights went out; the arena was aglow with the muted light of thousands of flickering candles. In a few hushed moments, the audience savored their magical surroundings. The show started.
The main act
Aida was the first opera performed at the arena; it has become a mainstay of the summer rotation. Though I didn’t know much about the story, I thoroughly enjoyed the talented soloists, perfectly tuned symphony, exciting choreography and colorful costumes and scenery. At one point, a fanciful caravan of elephants, portrayed by giant papier-mâché heads and shimmering rectangles of cloth, was hoisted across the stage by an invisible rope and pulley system. In another scene, dancers floated across the stage in a whirl of color and movement. All through the evening, the singers relied on voice projection alone to fill the air with sound. The acoustics are so good that no microphones or speakers are used. In the open air under the night sky, surrounded by the ancient archways and stairs, I felt that the show was as much on the stage below as everywhere around me.
For more information
Tickets to the opera at the arena can be purchased online at the Arena’s website. You can also buy tickets in person at the box office. The opera season lasts from late June to the end of August. The arena is open to the public for tours during the day year round.