A woman I’ve never met should have been sitting in that seat: front row of the steps, with a friend on either side and a fabulous view of the Verona Arena’s magnificent stage, waiting for the final gong to sound the start of the night’s production of Verdi’s Aida. Her misfortune in being unable to make it was my immense good luck: thank you, Ana – it was amazing!
Being no kind of opera buff, I had no idea of the plot before mugging up on it from the programme. It reads like a B-series soap opera: what a twisted bunch those Egyptians were! Not to mention the tricky Ethiopians! (A conversation with Giuseppe Verdi about Italian foreign and immigration policy would no doubt have been interesting…) Give or take a goddess or two and some unconventional headgear, you had the feeling the cast of Eastenders wouldn’t have felt too out of place in the whole set-up; the script writers might even want to consider burying the good guy alive as a possible plot line if inspiration flags, although the local pub may have to pass for the temple of Vulcan.
I didn’t know the score at all, either: the victory march in Act II was the only melody I was at all familiar with. (It’s great – a real ear worm, dislodged only by Ada humming ‘Torreador’ on the way home.) But the drama was certainly in the music rather than in the stage play for me, to be honest. The lead soprano and mezzo were built like battleships and swathed in the kinds of costume kids in my family used to put together out of the dressing-up box, while the burly male leads mostly resembled foil-wrapped poultry ready for the oven (with the exception of the high priest, who was a skinnymalink with a beautiful rich bass). These unfortunate physiques and the necessity of telegraphing emotions across a vast auditorium to an audience composed in large part of non-Italian-speaking tourists made the acting seem fairly unconvincing from where I was sitting. And that was before the cast came out of character after every aria to take a bow! But the choruses, the high priest and some of Aida’s singing sent shivers down my spine, and the orchestra were wonderful.
And what a great show! Personally I could have watched the conductor and the bows of the string section all night – harder to say which was leaping faster or with more verve. And when they moved the entire brass section of the orchestra up onto the stage for Act II (in full costume, naturally), everything else became rather secondary. Till they brought the horses onstage, that is… The stage set drew applause every time the lights went up – complete with burning brands ringing the action that must have had Verona fire department on red alert all evening, palm trees felled in the intermission to make way for vast pillars and deities, and twin sphinxes like bookends regarding the whole event inscrutably from either side of the magnificent stage. Yet even the sphinxes must have smiled at some of the high-energy choreography, not to mention the extremely cute slave children (don’t think about that one too hard).
And then the audience were practically worth coming to see in themselves. They absolutely loved it! The cheap seats at the top were cram-full two hours before the performance started – mostly, one suspects, with people like me who understood one word in a hundred of the original score. Somebody or other started clapping before the end of most arias, and a hard-core aficionado across from us screamed ‘bravissima!’ each time Aida or Amneris paused to draw breath. Opera purists might have been horrified, but it was rather endearing – and the cast understandably seemed taken by it.
I first went to Verona in 1988 with Carrie, and we yearned to go to see Aida at the pink Arena, where it was showing at the time, but eventually decided we couldn’t afford it from our limited Interrail funds. 23 years later, thanks to the unknown Ana and to Clara, I finally made it in on a free ticket. Talk about holding out for a bargain! And so very worth the wait.