4 nights of `ultimate opera experience'

But production of `Aida' lacks traditional grandeur

July 29, 1999|By Mary Johnson | Mary Johnson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Two dozen Anne Arundel countians who wanted to hear opera at its grandest in the land of Verdi and Puccini planned a pilgrimage to the Arena di Verona.

And in mid-July we had the ultimate opera experience during four nights in Verona, hearing glorious voices and seeing spectacular productions on the enormous stage.

Marking the 77th season of summer festivals at the fabled Arena di Verona, the 1999 season features a new production of Giuseppe Verdi's "Aida," together with Georges Bizet's "Carmen," Giacomo Puccini's "Tosca" and Franz Lehar's operetta, "The Merry Widow," with Andrea Bocelli.

The Romans built the arena 1,900 years ago to accommodate 22,000 spectators who witnessed gladiator contests and other spectacles. The first opera was presented in this open-air theater 86 years ago when Veronese tenor Giovanni Zanetello staged "Aida" there.

Since 1913 "Aida" has been presented every season -- except during the world wars -- along with a growing number of other operas.

Most of our group saw "Aida" in a new production celebrating the year 2000. A blue pyramid reminiscent of a misshapen ice cube dominated the set and the singers and dancers were costumed in what looked like foil. One friend described the production as astronaut-like, and others said they waited in vain for "something to happen," longing for a Triumphal March with horses and traditionally costumed soldiers.

My husband and I were pleased that two years ago we had seen the traditional version with 60-foot obelisks, palaces, sphinxes and assorted Egyptian grandeur.

The other evenings were triumphs -- "The Merry Widow" was beautifully staged by legendary Beni Montressor with rotating illuminated panels as backdrops for the dancers and a back-lighted staircase in the Maxim's scene.

Although Bocelli was listed as Count Danilo, the tenor was suffering from back trouble, so Mario Malagnini played the role.

Bocelli sang a few arias and provided great excitement. His is a light voice, but one of purity and beauty.

"Tosca" was all that anyone could have wished this most dramatic of Puccini's operas to be. In the title role, Paoletta Marrocu, a Sardinian soprano, was a worthy Tosca -- a commanding presence with a voice of firm, bright tone.

Nicola Martinucci as Cavaradossi has a ringing tenor, with powerful top notes, very effective in "E Lucevan le Stelle." The set, designed by Luciano Ricceri, filledthe 150-foot wide area with the rich panoply of the church, and later the grandeur of Scarpia's apartment.

Rear-screen projection techniques enhanced the church and apartment settings and intensified the drama, as we witnessed in silhouette Cavaradossi's torture and Tosca's suicide leap.

"Carmen" was just as well realized, with a magnificent set by Franco Zeffirelli. Denyce Graves, who is becoming the Carmen of our day, delivered a better performance than I'd heard her give three years ago at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. Don Jose was Franco Farina, who was also excellent, and Micaella was sung beautifully by Alida Ferrarina.

I had not intended to go to "Carmen" so I was lucky to find a place high up on the stones. Conscious of Romans who may have enjoyed spectacles from the same spot, we climbed to the top-most stones that became our seats. As singer Cecilia Gasdia describes it, the "mysterious acoustics of its millennial stone" allow singers to be heard as easily as in the first row of the amphitheater. Thousands of us squeezed together, which heightened the mysterious emotion of the event.

Three times the traditional gong rang to announce the start of the performance. At the third ring, we joined the ritual of lighting candles, and thousands of lights flickered around us -- an incredibly quiet throng of 17,000.

In this open space we formed a human wall that circled the arena and sometimes shattered the stillness with great waves of applause.

Surrounded by Italians, I was with people who love opera; it was an experience I will long treasure.

Pub Date: 7/29/99

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