Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Travel: Verona ~ Dramatic moments in real life

The arena at Verona

The star-studded sky arches overhead, stretching like a dazzling canopy. Its darkness holds the promise of secret treasures. The chirping of distant crickets fills the night air. The stage seems all set to reverberate with sound that will echo through the heavens.

We are at one of Europe's most glorious opera venues. The arena in Verona. The city which was founded on the banks of the river Adige in pre-Roman times. Local guides tell us that its importance grew under the Roman emperors, and later under the domination of the culturally-alive Scaligeri family ...

But let's return to the ancient arena at Verona. We enter through a weather-beaten staircase that takes us into the deep heart of the many-tiered theatre space. The steps are a patchy brown with time, some chipped with the impact of age-old footsteps, some worn smooth from the overflow of timeless waters. I can hardly believe that I'm really in a Roman arena. It calls to mind gladiators and fights with lions, perhaps even the chariot race in Ben Hur. Can the performance we're looking forward to, match the vivid visuals in my mind?

We look for a vantage point to watch the opera. The row of steps overlooking the `dress circle' in front of the performance area seems perfect. Gradually, the plush chairs in the carpeted area below fill up, we glimpse classy elegance -- in sculpted designer velvet dresses with scooped necklines and tuxedos over impeccably creased trousers.

In our more plebeian arena enclosure, from where we catch a bird's eye view, people from all walks of life are beginning to settle down for the evening. We watch punk-haired youth with metal-studded jackets and pretty Italian women in pencil-slim skirts. Vendors waving programme notes or hawking ice-cream walk sure-footedly between the rows, enticing customers with swift repartee.

As the sun's rays fade from the western skyline, the magnificent sets arrayed in the arena catch the eye. A striking fortress-like creation is centre-stage, with spectacular ramparts rising further away in the distance.
Suddenly, a hush falls over the crowd. Everyone settles quietly on the stone steps. And the operatic version of Macbeth opens in the enormous hollow bowl of earth below us. As the charismatic tenor and soprano voices soar through the imagined castles of Macbeth's realm, as the gory intrigues and fiery interchanges entrance us by their dramatic sweep, neither the cold steps nor the stars above matter for hours. For the characters, clad in red and silver, dazzle and clash against a miraculously moving tower that represents a fortress one moment, the clearing for the witches' coven the next. Smoke hazes through the sets, armies march in `camouflage' from Birnam Wood to Dunsinane...

Visual sleight works wonders as the clash of words and tempers erupts in smoke, both literally and metaphorically. What remains after the finale? The incredible music, though in a language alien to my ears! It is universal, magnificent and timeless. I still carry the sound of Macbeth as an Italian opera with me, replaying it in my inner ear.

Juliet's balcony

Over three hours later, when the sound and fury on the stage have abated, we wander out into the pale moonlight once more, along with thousands of others caught up in the trance of the opera. Outside the arena, on the cobbled streets, we find the sets of Aida from the night before. Does theatre have to be an illusion? Caught up in the magic of the moment, I wish it wasn't.

But the night seems young at 11.30 p.m. So, we follow the crowds to another link with theatre. The little house with a balcony where Juliet is reputed to have lived. Remember, Verona was the locale for the legendary romance of Romeo and Juliet? No one could tell us for sure if Juliet was a historical figure, but her legend lives on. Gauging by the post-opera crowds milling by her balcony in the wee hours.

A statue of Dante at Verona
Mossed-over niches, uncared for arched doorways, yet a balcony with a claim to fame. And not so far away, open to the public during select hours, lies Juliet's unadorned, solid stone tomb. We continue to walk through Verona, mulling over the fact that it was dominated by the Venetian Republic from 1404 to 1796.

Backtracking, we stop awhile to take in the turrets and corniches, the gables and wrought iron railings, the tended hedges and clock tower at the Castel Vecchio, the original home of the Scaligeri family. It is difficult to imagine daily life amidst such ornate opulence in this little used space today. But it is easier to conjure up feuding families like the Capulets and the Montagues in this archaic milieu.

Ponte Scaligeri
Close by, a chapel with gables and a sculpted facade houses the Scaligeri graves. No doubt revered by the town which they moulded as a cultural centre. Minutes away, standing over a bridge of many arches, the Ponte Pietra, we see the dark and archaic splendour of the Castel San Pietro or St. Peter Castle, a throwback to hundreds of years ago.

Distilled, at the heart of the Veronese experience lies a single charm -- the arena. It's come a long way from the gladiators to modern opera. Even if the tickets are steep, it's an experience to cherish for a lifetime. Once you do, Verona will always be a part of you.


  1. Shakespeare - Romeo and Juliet originally in Verona , Juliet is supposed to be 14 yrs. of age I believe.

    1. Could be, but... No history books certify that this romantic couple lived in Verona. But their story has become the stuff of lore and legend over the centuries, of course.

      Our drama teacher at college, an Irish nun from Connemara, told us Juliet was 14. Who knows?