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Arena di Verona

"IN THE OUTDOORS, one should play bocce, not sing,” Arturo Toscanini famously quipped to a journalist who asked what the maestro thought of opera al fresco. Much has changed since Toscanini’s time; most outdoor opera festivals nowadays make use of amplification. The Arena di Verona, which has been presenting opera annually since 1913, is not one of them. The world’s oldest continually operating outdoor opera venue relies instead on the acoustical prowess of the Roman architects who designed the amphitheater in the first century A.D. For the up-to-20,000 spectators who fill the Arena nightly from late June to early September, this requires close listening. The sound from the orchestra and the stage indeed travels all the way back to the stadium bleachers, but rarely in an all-enveloping whoosh. Although there are more expensive conventional theater seats in the bowl of the Arena, the bulk of the audience sits uncomfortably on the stone steps in reverent silence, holding candles (apparently an ancient Roman custom) and sipping wine (another Roman custom still in fashion). Orchestral detail can be hard to appreciate; sometimes you even need to strain to hear a singer. On the other hand, the acoustics of the Arena are such that individual words can come across with remarkable clarity, provided of course that a singer enunciates carefully. 

This summer’s revival of Hugo De Ana’s 2006 production of Tosca illustrated both the perils and advantages of experiencing opera at the Arena (seen Aug. 6). With a mostly “historically correct” staging, the Argentinian director showed an undeniable flair for spectacle, especially with the main set piece, a fragmented statue of the archangel Michael modeled on the one that adorns the Castel Sant’Angelo, the Roman mausoleum turned prison where the opera’s final scene is set. The mirrored tribune in back of the bronze angel’s massive head opened dramatically to reveal variously a group of clergy bathed in light (during the Te Deum) or Cavaradossi awaiting his execution. The off-stage cannon shot that announced Angelotti’s prison-break was a shock to the system—it took a few minutes for the audience to quiet down again—as well as the single loudest moment of the evening.         

In addition to directing, De Ana also designed the set, the traditionally ornate costumes and even the frequently garish lighting. It all seemed incredibly confident, if possibly reckless. The larger effects, such as the Te Deum, involving even more off-stage cannons, clamorous church bells and the Arena di Verona’s sensational chorus, were boldly choreographed but frequently muddled.  

An impressive all-Italian cast seemed perfectly in tune with the production, excesses included. Despite the periodic gaffes and lack of coordination, the singers soldiered on brazenly, striving for maximal theatrical impact. Elena Rossi, a native of Reggio Emilia, was a sumptuously lyrical Tosca and kept things very much in proportion over the course of an emotionally fraught performance. While her glamorous voice wafted most easily in its higher registers, she also projected nicely during the more subdued, bittersweet pathos of “Vissi d’arte.” Only occasionally during her Act I duet with Mario, did her voice get lost amid the gentle swirl of the orchestra. Marco Berti, a native of Como, was on hand to lend thrilling high notes and muscular contours to Cavaradossi. Of the principal cast, his was the voice that held up the best over the venue’s limited acoustics. From the first note to the last, his performance was nothing less than absorbing, thanks to his ringing timbre, flowing phrases and generous, wafting tones. I felt bad for the magnificent Pavian baritone Ambrogio Maestri, whose richly expressive voice often failed to project in this space, especially in the first act. And while he certainly gained in stature and volume in the subsequent act, Maestri’s portrayal of Scarpia nevertheless remained somewhat staid and old-fashioned, devoid of the seething villainy that can make this character so terrifying.

While rehearsing Tosca here in June, Bulgarian conductor Julian Kovatchev, a regular guest at Arena di Verona, collapsed at the podium of a heart attack and was placed in an induced coma; the June and July performances of the Tosca run in Verona were conducted by Riccardo Frizza and Fabio Mastrangelo.  A little more than a month later, Kovatchev, the artistic and musical director of Teatro del Giglio in Lucca, was recovered enough to lead the sizable forces of the Arena di Verona Orchestra in a dramatically-charged reading that, like the singing itself, was more concerned with overall effect than individual detail. —A. J. Goldmann

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