Intimate Grandeur: Aida at the Arena di Verona

Verdi – Aida

Aida – María José Siri
Il Re – Romano Dal Zovo
Amneris – Olesya Petrova
Radamès – Murat Karahan
Amonasro – Sebastian Catana
Ramfis – Park Jongmin
Un Messaggero – Francesco Pittari
Sacerdotessa – Yao Bohui
Pianist – Patrizia Quarta

Coro dell’Arena di Verona / Diego Matheuz.
Video design & digital scenography – D-WOK.

Arena di Verona, Verona, Italy.  Thursday, July 15th, 2021.

Tonight, was something of a very different evening.  My first visit to the Arena di Verona to see Aida.  The Arena is a legendary venue and the excitement of being able to see opera in a Roman amphitheatre is something that is difficult to put into words.  The sheer scale of the venue is breathtaking and the magic of seeing singers at work under the Veronese night something very real.  Of course, with the current sanitary restrictions this was never going to be a typical evening at the Arena.  FFP2 masks were compulsory and spaces on the famous steps, the Gradinate, at the top of the Arena were numbered, rather than the traditional first come, first served.  Still, the atmosphere was electric – with ambulant salespeople going around the crowd before the show and during the intermission selling cushions, drinks, program books and libretti. 

Photo: © Fondazione Arena di Verona

Unfortunately, the sanitary restrictions were not the only change this evening.  Due to a labour dispute, at the performance start time of 21:00 we were informed that the orchestra would not play and that there would be reduced choral forces.  The performance was given with piano accompaniment by maestro collaborator Patrizia Quarta, a chorus of 25, and the spectators who chose to stay for the show were offered a full refund.  It’s unclear what the exact nature of the labour dispute was, although the harpist in the temple of Phtà and the trumpeters in the triumphal scene did show up for work.  Thus, this wasn’t the full Arena experience, and it would be hard to assess the performance fully as a result.  I wanted to experience sitting in the Gradinate and the view was indeed spectacular.  What was noticeable is how well the voices carried.  Hearing an unamplified voice in a space like this is something truly extraordinary and yes, while I regret not being able to have the full Arena experience, it was undoubtedly still memorable.

Photo: © Fondazione Arena di Verona

Of course, one doesn’t go to the Arena for insightful Regietheater.  As a result of the current sanitary restrictions, the chorus was parked at the side of the stage, dressed in black, while the principals acted out their roles on the stage in front of video projections showing various bits of Egyptian imagery.  The most notable was in Act 3 with a crescent moon over the Nile which contrasted nicely with the Veronese night above.  The ballet and masked extras provided visual interest, throwing themselves around in formation to offer various images of triumph, warfare and associated emotions.  In the temple of Phtà, the extras were ranged around the back holding lights which also offered an impressive sight.  Direction of the singers basically involved asking them to emote grandly to reach those in the highest gradinate, lots of outstretched arms, and staring into the extensive distance.

Photo: © Fondazione Arena di Verona

Hard to fully evaluate Diego Matheuz’ tempi as, given that a single piano was in no way a substitute for a full orchestra in terms of sustaining power, but they seemed sensible enough.  The chorus was enthusiastic in their reduced numbers, although it sounded as if there were no first tenors. Tuning and blend were admirable, and the reduced forces still managed to carry with enough power into the Arena – one could only imagine the impact with four times that number.  Quarta more than deserved her post-performance prosecco and she rightly granted a huge standing ovation from the Arena public. 

Photo: © Fondazione Arena di Verona

María José Siri offered us a passionate Aida.  The voice tends to hardness in its highest reaches, although that could be simply be as a result of feeling a need to fill the vast space.  She sang her ‘o patria mia’ with generous feeling, no pulling back for the high C which is a bit of a shame because in the final duet, she floated some magical lines and had no issues being heard.  Murat Karahan offered a robust and virile Radamès.  Again, his ‘celeste Aida’ was sung with a tremendous amount of volume, the closing diminuendo not attempted.  The voice is bulky but loses body higher up.  He did give us some genuine soft singing in the closing duet, pulling back on the tone nicely (no crooning unlike a certain Bavarian).  He could certainly be a very useful artist in these roles.

Photo: © Fondazione Arena di Verona

Olesya Petrova was terrific value as Amneris.  She made much of the text – the words always clear.  She has a magnificently full chest register, which she wasn’t afraid to exploit, and the registers were well integrated.  In the judgment scene she also sang with generous force, giving us all she had – the closing high A absolutely massive.  Sebastian Catana sang Amonasro in a baritone with a firm column of sound, although the tone was quite grainy and lacking in body at the top.  Park Jongmin sang Ramfis in a huge bass of impressive resonance and tonal beauty, while Romano Dal Zovo sang il Re with a velvety bass that also carried well.

Photo: © Fondazione Arena di Verona

Some mixed feelings, then, about tonight.  While it was a genuine treat to be able to attend this legendary venue and have the experience of sitting high up and experiencing a show in this historic amphitheatre, it is tinged with regret that there was no orchestra.  That said, I am full of gratitude for the chorus, ballet and principals, not to mention the pianist, who ensured that we got an evening of high drama despite the circumstances.

The view from the gradinate. Photo: © operatraveller.com

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