Every year, Verona holds an opera festival in the Roman arena. In 2013, when I went, the festival was celebrating its centenary. The operas all start around 21.00 or 21.15, so they take place after dark, creating a wonderful, romantic atmosphere.
I went to Aida, conducted by Omer Meir Welber, with Hui He as Aida and Fabio Sartori as Radames. This was a good choice, as this opera, with its grand choruses, is particularly suited to the sort of large scale productions which can be done in the Verona Arena. The director certainly took full advantage of the location. The cast must have involved about 200, mainly comprising soldiers and priests of the temple. The soldiers all appeared with torches in Act 1 scene 1- you can’t do that in an indoor theatre! Scene 2 began with a brilliantly choreographed entrance by the priests of the temple all from different entrances to the Arena and all came in carrying lamps. At the start, I wondered why the seats behind the stage weren’t being used. Once the performance started, I realised. Torches were mounted on the top steps of the Arena, and in Act 3, which takes place at night, by the banks of the Nile, an artificial moon was raised- then the real moon came out, so there were two!
Overall, this is a superb experience for anyone who enjoys opera, and it needn’t cost a fortune.
Verona Opera Practicalities
The opera season runs from June to September, and tickets can be bought online via www.arena.it . Prices in 2013 ranged from 21 euros unreserved on the upper levels to 183 euros in the stalls. The more expensive tickets seem to have to be collected before the performance, or sent by courier for a fairly hefty additional charge, but the cheap ones can be printed as e tickets, which you just show at the gate. Easy! The tickets will indicate the gate number, and as the Arena is huge, with several entrances, it’s a good idea to identify your gate earlier in the day.
I had one of the cheap tickets, and this was absolutely fine. Sure, you are a long way from the stage, but the acoustics are fine, and you actually get a better view of the whole Arena than you would in the stalls. The effect of the temple priests all entering with lamps worked extremely well from where I was sitting, as being high up, I had the view over the whole Arena. Some came in from the entrance right next to me, before working their way down to the stage.
As these cheap seats are unreserved, it’s a good idea to get there early. The performance started at 21.15 and the doors opened at 19.30. I got there just after 19.30 and found a pretty good place. Bear in mind that toilets for the unreserved seats in the gallery are temporary ones set up outside the Arena, so best to use them before you go in. You can access them during intervals but don’t forget to take your ticket with you, as you won’t be allowed back in without it! For those in the stalls, the toilets are inside.
It’s definitely a good idea to rent a cushion for an extra 3 euros as you’ll otherwise be sitting for more than 3 hours on stone steps. You can collect these just inside, up the steps after you’ve had your ticket checked. One of the great traditions of the Verona opera festival is that members of the audience light candles, which makes for a beautiful sight. The custom originates from the early performances, when there was no electric lighting. You can collect free candles when you go in, in the same place where you rent the cushions. But they are rather puny and the evening I went there was a fairly strong wind. In spite of valiant efforts to get a light from some people a few steps down, and respect the tradition, it was impossible to keep the candle alight. But if there’s no wind, it might work.
In theory you are not supposed to bring glass bottles inside, and the young man who checked my ticket asked me if I was carrying any in my bag. In practice this rule seems to be widely ignored, and the two German ladies sitting next to me had brought in a bottle of wine. Two of my friends who went the year before and sat in the stalls even took a bottle of bubbly in and got away with it. But bear in mind that in theory your bottles may be confiscated. Inside, vendors come round selling drinks, including wine- I’m not sure what the prices are.
Programmes for individual performances don’t seem to be available, which is a pity, as they would make a nice souvenir, and it’s also good to have the cast list. You can find this online, of course, and if you want a souvenir, you can buy the libretto of the particular opera you’re seeing for 5 euros, or the programme for the whole season for 10 euros.
My e ticket stated that “formal dress is required in the stalls.” In practice I didn’t see all that many men in dinner jackets or women in evening dresses- smart casual is fine- but nice to make an effort if you can. The dress code in the cheap seats is definitely informal- I think formal would actually be rather out of place. I wore jeans- had no choice anyway, as my luggage had got delayed and was at that moment sitting at Bergamo Airport waiting to be sent to me!
In theory, you are not supposed to take pictures at any time. In practice, people were snapping away throughout, even though in theory the organisers are allowed to confiscate your camera. Be sensible and discreet. It’s really not fair to take pictures during the performance as it disturbs other people, and looks as though you’re making an illegal recording even if you’re not. But taking a few shots of the Arena before or after the show, or during the intervals shouldn’t be a problem.
Weather can be a hazard. If it rains, the performance is suspended or cancelled. It wrecks the instruments, so there really is a good reason for this. A decision to cancel won’t be taken until the day itself and the performance can start up to two and a half hours late. It can also be interrupted, and I’ve read of performances going on for hours longer than normal for this reason. The rules say that ticket prices will only be refunded if the performance is cancelled altogether- i.e. if it’s abandoned half way through, you won’t get any money back. The evening I went, the weather was basically fine apart from the wind, but there was an anxious moment just five minutes before the end, when Aida and Radames were sealed up under the temple awaiting their deaths. Everybody felt just a slight drop of rain and the performance stopped. There was much clapping to encourage the conductor to start up again and a cry of andiamo maestro! After about 5 minutes the rain stopped and the opera was completed.
After I returned, I found out that the next performance of Aida, on 27 June, was cancelled due to torrential rain. So it can happen, though I wouldn’t be deterred by this risk- the spring and early summer of 2013 saw particularly bad weather. I’ve been trying to find out the probability of rain, but so far without success. If any meteorologists out there have a way of working this out, I’d love to hear from you, as it would be quite nice to know the odds.
I’m not sure how the refunds work. The website claims that they can be made only in cash for amounts less than 1000 euros, so quite what you do if you leave Verona the day after the performance, I don’t know. I doubt very much that they give refunds to everybody in cash on the night.
If you would like to share any experiences of this and any other aspects of the Verona Opera Festival or have questions you would like to ask me, please use the comment form below.