Posted by: Brad Nixon | August 9, 2011

The Big Show: Singing, Dancing, Love, Death, More Singing. Horses. More Singing

Wherever one travels, it’s especially fortunate if one can take part in local festivals, holidays, observances and even sporting events. There’s also art and music to soak in everywhere around the globe, and one wants to capitalize on any opportunity to expand the higher faculties whenever possible. For nearly a hundred years, Verona, Italy has drawn gigantic crowds to witness a unique nexus of culture, history, music and sport every summer, staged in a massive Roman arena that still stands nearly 2000 years after it was built. (At the time, it was outside the city walls, but someone moved it into the center of the city during the Renaissance (Italian for “urban renewal.”) Here’s a look at the arena (click on the image to enlarge it):

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Roman Arena, Piazza Bra, Verona, Italy

It’s a sport that has a limited following in the United States, but is HUGE (“molto grosso”) in Italy. We’re talking, of course, about the sport of Opera.

 

The rules of the game are simple and pure, and, like Opera’s distant cousin, 43 Man Squamish, allow for much improvisation and elaboration around the central confrontation of the two sides. Any story worth the telling anywhere in the world contains the core components to become an opera, and some pretty wacky tales have been adapted and played out on this unique field of battle: two women compete; one dies. Sometimes, they both die, along with lots of other people, but at least one of them dies. It’s the rule, #114.3, in the Official Rules of Opera. In the best operas, the two women are Sopranos, and they sing until one keels over from starvation, stabbing, various vaguely defined diseases or, of course, the always-reliable Broken Heart.

Opera’s been around a long time in Italy, and was already a dominant force by the time Mozart came on the scene and became the first big international player to be lured out of the German Bundesliga to play for LaScala Milano in Italy. It was a scandal at the time, but people looked the other way, because getting Mozart out of the German states diffused the tension over the confrontation over commercial rights to the name “Wolfgang” that was raging between Mozart and Goethe.

The inaugural season in the Verona Arena (sounds less tacky in Italian: Arena di Verona) in 1913 was short, consisting of a single opera, Aida, by the stalwart Italian composer and left half-tenor, Lean Joe Green (I’ve taken the liberty of translating difficult names like “Giuseppe Verdi” for those of you not familiar with the language). As it happens, it was a recreation of that original 1913 production — costume design and all — just two weeks ago that the Counselor and I attended. As you’ll see in the photos that follow, it gave the entire piece a kind of reminiscence of early silent film epics with those Art Deco headdresses and everything, but it was extremely stylish.

I tell you, fans, it was an incredible scene. The gigantic stone oval was packed with 20,000 people (I’m not making that part up) come to witness the Battle of the Titanesses, Amneris vs. Aida. Well, don’t take my word for it. Let’s go to the photo. Here’s the arena an hour before the show, with most of the crowd still milling outside quaffing grappa to steel themselves for the ordeal ahead (click on the image to enlarge):

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Arena Verona

One of the distinguishing features of the Arena di Verona is that the still-intact stone edifice retains its original sonic properties, and allows the Verona operas to be staged just as were the productions staged in 100 A.D. by the local Roman government: without amplification. I’ll say that again. Without amplification. Stunning. The Romans, of course, had no choice, having frittered away their time conquering the world instead of inventing electricity, electronics and Walkmans (Latin: ambulahominem.) Take a look at that photo above. I’m about 150 feet from the stage, by my estimate, and I could hear every word — or would have, could I understand Italian singing. There was an 80-piece orchestra in the pit and a massive stage that, at times, held 200 people from the two teams (well, actually, there are about 180 players on Amneris’ side and 20 on Aida’s, but no one said it would be a fair fight).

OK, let’s cut to the action and introduce the opponents.

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Radames, Aida, Amneris

This is what you need to know about the opera, Aida. The players, from left to right. Radames, young warrior of Egypt. Has secretly fallen in love with, center, Aida,  enslaved daughter of the Ethiopian King Amonasro. She’s now a serving-girl in the court, and has secretly fallen in love with Radames. Right, Amneris, daughter of the Egyptian king, loves Radames, too, and suspects something. If you can’t figure out what’s going to happen from here, then you might as well go back to watching pro football on Sundays. As you can see, these are top players in their prime: big, fast, able to project their voices across about 100 meters of open air to the standing room at the top of the arena. (So far, no one has looked into the allegations of steroid abuse in Opera that result in these distorted body shapes, but, really, can torsos like that come from just breathing in and out a few thousand times a day during training? I ask you.)

They waste no time. Amneris confronts Aida in the duet, Vieni, o diletta, appressati, which means,Girl, you’d better watch your water lilies, baby.” Aida, knowing that her royal status is still secret, holds her own here, and it’s a standoff as we head to the second quarter of play. Unfortunately, the Egyptian king has wind of an attack by Aida’s father, king of Ethiopia, and sends Radames and the army out to whip ’em. Take a look at this scene! (click to enlarge)

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The army assembles

Radames whips ’em, sure enough, and here comes the classic set piece of every production of Aida, demonstrating why this is not a show that is commonly performed by high schools or community theater groups: the Triumphal Entrance of Radames.

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The procession

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… with horses

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Radames triumphant

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There are, of course, dancing maidens

All the Italians and the opera-lovers in the house know the show already, but anyone can tell where this is heading. It’s going to come down to the two big sopranos battling it out over Radames. There’s a lot of subplot here about promises made and what Radames knew and when he knew it, but …

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Sopranos, donna contra donna

… in the end, yep, it’s Amneris who wins out. Since she can’t have Radames, she makes certain that he’s sealed in a gigantic tomb and left to die (a bet she later — vainly — tries to hedge). Cleverer than she, though, Aida has managed to sneak into the tomb ahead of time so that she can die with Radames. Not much of a victory in the NFL, but in the Opera game, that, my friends, is called “winning.” Here’s a final shot of Radames, lamenting not his death but his separation from Aida, moments before she coyly steps out from behind one of those pillars to reveal that, yes, he’s going to die, but at least she’s there to die with him:

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Radames laments

They close with the beautiful and heart-rending La fatal pietra sovra me si chiuse (I wish now I had gone on vacation last week), and the whole place erupts in tears and applause. Time to go have another grappa, preferably poured over pistachio gelato, if you ask me.

I can’t pretend to write seriously about opera due to my lack of education, so to learn more about the genuine Arena di Verona, visit their well-composed Web site, HERE. To read about this production of Aida without the smart aleck comments, GO HERE. Grazie, Verona. Grazie, Signore Verdi.

© 2012, 2015 Brad Nixon

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Responses

  1. great write-up, I felt like Vin Scully and Jim McKay were covering Aida for national TV!

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    • Like hockey, opera is better live in the arena than on TV. Plus, the wine in the arena is only 5 Euros, which is ‘way better than the drink prices at most U.S. sports!

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  2. looks like fun!!www.sandbetweentoes.wordpress.com

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  3. That would make a swell Super Bowl halftime show.

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  4. In the words of that legendary college football announcer Keith JACKKK-suhn, “Whoa, NELLIE!” Brad, you have done a great play-by-play of Aida. As I know a heckuva lot more about college and pro football than I do about Italian Opera, your article was most informative, interesting, and entertaining. Oh, sure, I’d recognize some of the more famous arias (in the manner of say, remembering an old Beatles song); but, name the opera from which that aria comes? Extremely dubious. Thanks a lot for the Enlightenment!

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    • If you think I know the names of those arias without looking them up, then you are giving me ‘way too much credit.

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  5. Is the “left half tenor” the dude who runs through the hole sung by the full baritone? Those 43 man squamish rules still give me fits.

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  6. 43 man squamish? I actually know more about opera than this subject. That is not saying a whole lot, however.

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  7. Fantastic review. I reveled in the enthusiastic translations. I was transported back to my high school Latin class, picturing myself stuttering through “Ego habeo unum ambulohominus”.

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    • So … even if you wondered at the time why in the heck you had to study Latin, now you know that it was so you could make clever jokes several decades later!

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  8. I didn’t study Latin. Perhaps that’s why I’m so humorless. 🙂

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  9. I loved it!! I haven’t any idea what it’s all about either, but enjoyed your rendition!

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