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By Glenn Loney July 30, 2003

Glenn Loney
Caricature of Glenn Loney
by Sam Norkin.

Viewing "Carmen" from the wings
Seeing Aida from beyond the scenes

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Seven-thousand spectators at every performance of open-air opera at Austria's Bregenz Festival is quite an achievement. The lakeside bleachers simply cannot hold more people.

That is hardly the problem in Italy's Arena di Verona. This great oval Roman Colosseum can easily accommodate thousands more than Bregenz. But, having last visited Verona during the summer opera-season some forty years ago, I mistakenly assumed that there would be no problem about a choice of seats.

Without success, I had already attempted in New York to contact the Verona Opera press-office. The phone-numbers were out-of-date, and as I'm not online, I had no access to an Arena website. Usually, however, festival press-offices have a few tickets held back for contingencies.

Arriving in Verona from Venice—traveling with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's chief theatre-architect and scenic-designer, Richard L. Hay—we made a bee-line for the great outdoor ruin to find the press-office. Much to our surprise, in one of the huge arches which support the outer walls of the amphitheatre was a very large sign, in English: PRESS OFFICE!

Unfortunately, it was padlocked with a big lock and heavy chain. We waited around a while, but no one came by. Finally, we went to the central ticket-office, only to be told the press staff were at lunch and would be back at three. At three, no-one showed. Returning to the ticket-office, we were given various pieces of wrong information about the real location of the Press-Office.

Returning to the great archway, I was astonished to see a young woman just coming out of the office and re-padlocking the gate. She explained that this office was only open at night, just before the performances, so reviewers could pick up their tickets. She also noted that it was her first day on the job, but that she was in "Marketing," not Press-Relations.

Nonetheless, she very generously went off to find the real Chief of Press, an intense young woman who arrived on the scene with a male colleague in tow. They were very busy with some kind of celebration of famous bicycle-racers. Events were scheduled that afternoon and evening. And there would be bike-races later! The fact that I was an American journalist had sparked some interest, for they hoped I'd want to write about the cycling.

Not my thing, so they immediately lost interest. The lady press-chief told me there were no press-tickets left for that night's performance of Franco Zeffirelli's "Carmen " production in any case. Even though it was obvious that thousands and thousands of spectators can cram into the rows and rows of stepped stone seating. Not to mention the hundreds of seats on the floor of the oval, where once chariots raced and gladiators died.

As for the "Aida" premiere two evenings hence, there just might be a cancellation or two at the last minute. She gave me two press-office phone-numbers to call, plus the address of the Festival Offices. Neither of the numbers was operational, as fate would have it. Although the offices are supposed to be on the main piazza, across from the Arena, I found no number corresponding with the one she'd given me.

Viewing "Carmen " from the Wings


Late that same afternoon, we bought two cheap tickets for "Carmen " high up in the amphitheatre and very close to the stage-right side of the giant stage-set. Almost everything was already sold-out, and some seats rather distant from the stage proved as costly as orchestra-seats at the Met. Quite a change from the days of yore…

As both Richard Hay and I have a long-standing interest in how productions are designed, produced, and played, our sideline-seats actually proved very useful, as we could see masses of chorus and extras lining up behind the scenes—which we could also see fairly well from the front, though at an angle.

Years ago, Verona had the same basic problem as Bregenz. Strong breezes would blow away the sounds of arias, duets, and choruses, mid-note. Today, not a note is lost, no matter how inclement the weather. Amplification also does not distort voices either.

But on such an expanse of stage, it is often not easy to see where the voice or voices are supposed to be coming from, unless the singers are spotlighted and dressed to command attention. Verona's opera-settings are splayed out on one end of the vast oval arena, rising upward on the amphitheatre seating from a huge frontal platform.

Franco Zeffirelli is a genius who can stage a chamber-opera with consummate delicacy and sensitivity. But he is far better known for his opera-spectaculars. His Met Traviata echoes his film-treatment of that masterwork. His Met Turandot is the spectacle to end all spectacles.

Zeffirelli's problem in Verona's Arena is that the stage-space is just too big, so the production has to be spread out very wide, like CINERAMA™, and then some. To give the audience of thousands something to look at from all sides, he has resorted to side-stages, flanking the vast main-stage. Here—even for intimate scenes center-stage—dancers and extras mime and move about to echo the main action or create some kind of ambiance or atmosphere. It is, however, ultimately distracting, even irritating.


Major roles, as at Bregenz, are usually multiple-cast. Our good fortune was to have Marina Domashenko as "Carmen ", Samuel Ramey as Escamillo, Josť Cura as Don Josť, and Hei-Kyung Hong as Micaela. They did very well to hold their own, with so much superficial activity going on around them! Alain Lombard conducted.

Curiously, the only really calm performers on the "Carmen " stage were the animals. Micaela arrived in a horse-drawn wagon. Had I not seen the horse pulling it onstage, I would have thought the beast just a stage-prop later on. Not only the horse, but some live donkeys, hitched to carts on the other side of the stage, stood there without even flicking an ear! Amazing what Italian trainers can do with animal-performers… Unfortunately, some of the dancers would not take a break and let the main stage-action go forward, without their needless movement-commentary.

Actually, "Carmen " did not begin on time as there was a lengthy salute to some famous cyclists, something I suppose I should have shown more interest in that afternoon.

As the Verona Arena settings just sit there on the platforms and bare stones—with no winches to raise them up out of sight, or tracks to slide them far offstage out of sight—transformations and scene-changes have to take place in full view of the audience. This was especially interesting when the venue changed from Seville to the Smuggglers' Hideout and back. Large hinged flats unfolded upward to create the ancient city, and then folded down again to become forests and rocky outcroppings, painted on the back-sides of the flats. These changes were also quite a show, though accomplished with no musical accompaniment…

A cautionary note for those who may want to visit Verona next summer: Performances begin at 9 pm and seldom end until midnight or later. Unfortunately, the city buses stop running about 10 pm. Our excellent hotel was near the railroad-station—handy for daytime trips to Vicenza or Mantua—but a very long walk from the Arena in the city-center. Make sure your hotel is near the Arena!

Seeing "Aida" from beyond the Scenes

Hoping against hope that I would somehow find the main Press-Office for "Aida" returns, we waited until the very last minute to buy tickets. The only seats left were high up on the stone seats, actually behind the stage-action. So I now have some very interesting photos of monumental Egyptian Victory Processions forming down below me in the wings.

This epic "Aida" was also staged and designed by Franco Zeffirelli—with spectacular costumes by Anna Anni, who also outfitted his "Carmen ". Daniel Oren conducted the orchestra, with choreography by Vladimir Vassiliev.

Larissa Diadkova was an impressive Amneris—in a fantastic blue gown that would have been just right for Turandot on the following evening. Doina Dimitru was the much-abused "Aida", with Piero Giuliacci as her stalwart Radames.

The summer opera-repertory also included Nabucco, Traviata, and Rigoletto, plus the ballet of Don Quixote.

Verona is, of course, an historic city with architectural reminders of many grand eras in its long life. Il Duomo and the Church of San Zeno are obligatory pilgrimages. But there were even some special opera-related exhibitions. One of them—in the Palazzo della Gran Guardia—was entirely free: I MEI GIOIELLI DI SCENEA. It consisted of some remarkable pieces of stage-jewelry, created from Swarovski Crystal™ for the legendary Maria Callas!

Next summer will be the 82nd Festival di Verona! The splendidly spectacular "Aida", "Rigoletto", and "Traviata" productions return, to be joined by Il Trovatore and "Madama Butterfly". Should you want to plan ahead, the Festival's website is www.arena.it [Loney]

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Copyright and copy; Glenn Loney, 2003. No re-publication or broadcast use without proper credit of authorship. Suggested credit line: "Glenn Loney, New York Theatre Wire." Reproduction rights please contact: jslaff@nytheatre-wire.com.



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