While thousands of tourists flock to Juliet's balcony every day, there was one attraction in Verona I was far more interested in visiting, the Roman Arena. 2013 marks the centenary of both the summer opera festival at the Arena di Verona and the first performance of Verdi’s Aida there, an occasion celebrated with a lavish new production by La Fura dels Baus.
While the ancient stone benches high up in the Gods may be the cheap seats, they afford spectacular views over the Arena and Verona beyond, with the Lamberti Tower, beautifully lit up, dominating the night sky. The downside, however, is that sound doesn’t travel that well, so sometimes had to strain to hear the singers.
My only prior knowledge of Aida came from Elton John’s 1998 musical and boiled down to 'Pharaoh’s daughter Amneris loves warrior Radames but he is in love with Aida, who happens to secretly be the princess of Ethiopia, with whom Egypt are currently at war'. This wasn’t really enough to follow the show, especially when it was so hard to hear the lyrics, and the singers performing Radames and the Pharaoh looked so similar.
At the time, I wasn't particularly moved by the music either. There was only one truly memorable piece of music, the Triumphal March at the end of Act One, but that one piece is incredibly rousing and remained stuck in my head for days (the video below is a version by the Metropolitan Opera House).
Luckily the production was so ridiculously extravagant, it kept us entertained for the four long hours of the opera. While replicas of the original 1913 cardboard pyramids and Sphinx were piled outside the Arena for anniversary performances later in the season, this version of Aida was completely wacky: fire, inflatable sculptures, an aluminium pyramid assembled by crane, acrobats, mechanical camels, men in orange boiler suits with scarab beetle heads riding bumper cars, flooding the stage to make a lake inhabited by dancers dressed as crocodiles... Under the night sky, it was a visual feast that impressed and baffled us in equal measure.
Aida continues to run as part of the 2013 summer season at the Arena di Verona until 8 September: full details here.