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Italy's World Cup and the Opera, in the Ancient Arena of Verona

Ginda Simpson

The crown of Verona's glorious architecture is the Roman Arena, constructed in the first century AD. Elliptical in shape and built of pink and white local stone, it is the best-preserved amphitheatre in Italy. Today it serves as theatre for the performances of Verona's renowned summer opera season.

The arena is pulsating this evening with the excitement of two different dramas. The one - Aida - re-enacts an old tale of love, war, and betrayal set in ancient Egypt. The other drama, a more modern one, is the final soccer match for the World Cup being played out in Berlin. Although the competition is taking place hundreds of miles away, the citizens of Verona, of Italy and indeed the world are watching, listening, ready to share in the jubilation of victory or the agony of defeat.

As the story of Aida unfolds, opera fans enjoy the spectacle of this Verdi masterpiece that has thrilled audiences for over a century. The Khedive of Cairo commissioned Giuseppe Verdi to write the opera for the opening of the new Opera House in Cairo. Basing the work on a short synopsis created by French archaeologist Auguste Mariette, Verdi expanded the story. The scenery and costumes were to reflect ancient Egyptian life as depicted in the paintings of her ancient tombs.

Aida, as staged and performed at the Arena of Verona, is second to none, except perhaps for Aida performed at the Pyramids of Giza, which I had the privilege of seeing in 1998 when I lived in Cairo. I sit glued to my seat, riveted by the magnificent staging of this opera. Although they are also immersed in this drama of Ancient Egypt, the Italians hold their cell phones, receiving text messages from outside. Stored under their seats or clutched in their hands are Italian flags that they hold ready for a victory cheer.

The Opera Aida on the stage in Verona

The Opera Aida on the stage in Verona

Early on, a spontaneous, uproarious, united cheer erupts from the audience and it is not because Egypt's king has announced war on the Ethiopian Army advancing on Thebes. Italy's Azzurri have scored in a far-off German stadium, where the enthusiasm of over 200,000 fans is, no doubt, reaching a fever pitch. In Act Two of Aida, the Ethiopian Army has been defeated and the victorious Egyptian forces enter the gates of Thebes. Our Italian companions, both inside and outside the Arena, fall strangely silent, tense as the final act of the soccer drama is being played out. On stage, Aida, the beautiful Ethiopian slave, cries of her desperation with a stirring area. Deceived by her rival, she fears her beloved may not return from the war.

It is intermission time and everyone stands to stretch and chat with friends excitedly. Two minutes into the break, the Arena erupts into a passionate uproar, pulling out foghorns, whistles and yards and yards of waving red, white and green. They yell, they shout, they cheer. The crowd is out of control with euphoria. I look at LaNell with a shrug and declare, "This is one intermission that is going to last much longer than twenty minutes! And that's if they can ever get these Italians to act like 'Egyptians' again!" On stage, a young man emerges from the pyramid waving an oversized Italian flag, and the lighting crew projects the bandiera onto the set. The crowd goes wild. The opera company drifts out onto the stage, whooping and hollering, kissing and jumping up and down for joy. Italy has won the World Cup!

Nearly two hundred people have rushed onto the stage from behind the scenery, in various stages of dress or undress - some in Egyptian costume, some in Italian street clothes. They are having a party right there in front of the pyramid. They fall silent when the orchestra starts up. Aida and assorted Egyptian royals, Ethiopian slaves and soldiers, citizens of Thebes, overcome with Italian national pride, join hands and voices to sing Fratelli d'Italia. Their Italian brothers in the audience stand united, joining them in song.

Euphoria on stage in Verona

Euphoria on stage in Verona

But what about the opera? Outside the arena, the pandemonium is surely going to make it impossible to continue. But continue they do, Aida's lovely soprano voice making a remarkable effort to rise about the raucous. However, the noise is interfering with the sound system and Aida pauses; then throws up her arms good-naturedly, leaving the stage amid a deafening applause.

The opera could have ended at that moment, and still have been a huge success. No one, on this evening, would ask for a ticket refund. But Aida is not going to be defeated so easily - she will sing to her grave - and she does!

It is way past midnight; the hoopla in the streets continues. Italy has won the World Cup and the crowds are certainly in their cups, with joy and with drink. Waving flags or wearing flags, the citizens of Verona hug, kiss and leap into the air. Many of the intoxicated youth would have been too young to remember Italy's last win twenty-four years ago, but they are celebrating as if they have been practicing their entire lives. To our shock, a dozen or more teens have climbed to the top of a public bus and are stumping and cheering. The bus driver is nowhere in sight. The rowdier ones kick over trashcans and break beer bottles on the stone cobbles. From our hotel window, we have a birds-eye view of the disorderly conduct.

At two in the morning, we give in to an overwhelming weariness, as the Veronese continue to celebrate. Our room overlooking the Borsari Gate is blessedly soundproof.

At 7:30 in the morning, I open the shutters to discover that the square has been swept clean. The streets glimmer in the golden light. A lone bicyclist passes beneath the 2000 year-old gate and turns left, down a narrow medieval lane.

About the Author

Ginda Simpson is an American artist/writer now living in the Umbrian countryside. It has been said of her work, "her paintings tell stories, her stories paint pictures." For more information, please visit www.gindasimpson.com.

© Ginda Simpson, 2006

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