The birthplace of opera as far back as the 16th century, there is no more appropriate destination for an opera holiday than Italy. Among the country’s most prominent venues is the Arena di Verona, a Roman amphitheatre built in the 1st century, now home to a fantastic Opera Festival which takes place every summer. In July of 2016, I was lucky enough to join a Travel Department group for an opera performance in this incredible place as part of our Lake Garda, Venice & Verona Opera holiday in association with RTÉ Lyric fm’s Marty Whelan.
Our base was the beautiful Riva del Garda, a charming, compact town on the northern tip of Italy’s Lake Garda. Surrounded by breathtaking mountains, Riva not only offers spectacular scenery, but also a relaxed vibe, plenty of restaurants, cafés and gelaterias, as well as clothing and souvenir shops in which to pass the time.
On the day of the opera performance, we were treated to a special lunch event with the inimitable Marty Whelan himself. After speaking briefly about the show we were about to witness, the history of the Arena di Verona, and the joy of experiencing opera in Italy, Marty took time to stop and speak to those at each table individually, even posing for photographs, for an afternoon enjoyed by the entire group.
After a brief few hours to recoup and don our Sunday best, it was time to make the trip to the romantic city of Verona for our night at the opera. Upon arrival, our local guide gave us a quick lay of the land, before leaving us with enough time to explore the beautiful square and narrow shopping streets in the vicinity of the arena, and to grab a quick bite to eat before the performance. Piazza Bra directly beside the arena offers a selection of cafés and restaurants facing out onto the park with a wonderful atmosphere in which to sit and watch the world go by.
Entering the arena itself is like experiencing a little bit of the past. Originally built in the year 30AD to stage shows and games, every inch of the structure is steeped in history, its stone steps worn from centuries of feet treading up and down. On the night we attended, Verdi’s “La Traviata” was the opera of choice. Literally translating as “The Fallen Woman” the three-act opera is set in Paris around 1850 and chronicles the doomed love between Violetta and Alfredo.
Before the performance had even begun, I was struck immediately by the size and grandness of the stage. Split into three sections – a central platform with two wings to either side – a series of giant inclined picture frames jutted up from the floor. I was yet to realise that the enormous structure in the centre would rise up from the floor for a dramatic climax at the end of the first act.
Before that, we would be treated to a kaleidoscope of colourful costumes and choreography, ballads, duets and choruses. For those of us less well versed in opera, it was a relief to find so many of the tunes surprisingly familiar. The best of these was, of course, the famous “Libiamo ne' lieti calici”, a Brindisi, or “drinking song”, undoubtedly one of the world’s most recognisable opera songs. Sung in Italian, an English translation appeared on large screens at the back of the arena, making it easy to follow the story and get to know each of the characters.
The highlight of the show, however, was undoubtedly the performance from the lead soprano, playing the role of Violetta. A young Russian by the name of Ekaterina Bakanova, her voice was utterly spellbinding, each note pitch-perfect and with such intensity. The sheer power of all the singers on stage is even more impressive when you consider they perform without amplification – as it would have been when Verdi first wrote the opera in the mid-19th century – but not quite as impressive as the venue’s perfect acoustics, designed almost two millennia ago.
Although it was late by the time the opera concluded and we made the journey back to Riva, the group left Verona in good spirits, discussing their favourite aspects of the show and impressions of the city. A few days later, Marty and the crew broadcast live from Italy, playing musical highlights from La Traviata and featuring interviews with the lead performers recorded before the show, as well as our own Travel Department guests. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one listening in for a reminder of how truly special the experience had been.
Find out more about our Lake Garda, Venice & Verona Opera holiday in association with RTÉ Lyric fm’s Marty Whelan.