Summer for opera fans here in France means the delights of open-air concerts in one of the country’s most sumptuous outdoor settings, the théâtre antique in the southern town of Orange.
This year there was even the chance to catch one of France’s most popular tenors, Roberto Alagna, singing the principal role in Gounod’s Faust. A treat under the balmy mid summer night skies, guaranteed to tickle the fancy of any opera buff. For those not lucky enough to be there in person there was the possibility to see it on public television as it was transmitted live.
But arguably Europe's principal outdoor opera festival is to be found in the northern Italian town of Shakespeare’s immortalised lovers Romeo and Juliet at the Arena di Verona.
Now in its 86th season, the first summer festival of operas performed at Verona was in 1913 to celebrate the birth a century earlier of one of Italy’s greatest composers, Giuseppe Verdi.
The Arena itself is a Roman amphitheatre dating back to AD 30, and if filled to capacity could seat 30,000.
There is of course the official blurb about how the thing was built and how it’s just about one of the best-preserved sites of its type.
But nothing, no picture no film can really do it justice or beat the thrill of being there, seeing it, doing it, hearing it and just letting it all wash over you.
The backbone of the programme has of course been Verdi. The three-month season, which begins in June and finishes at the end of August opens and closes with his Aida and other mainstays include work by other Italian composers, Puccini and Rossini, along with Bizet’s Carmen.
Alongside Aida and Carmen, this year's selection also included Tosca, Nabucco and Rigoletto. And for 2009 the first three will be back again, joined by Turandot and Il Barbiere di Siviglia.
So what of this year’s offering. Well this is not an exhaustive review of all the performances (you'll probably be pleased to discover) but just a taste of the one I managed to see - Nabucco.
As far as the plot goes - well if you want one, here it is. But as with any opera, taken out of its musical and dramatic context it seems quite implausible, especially when offered in a nutshell. You have been warned.
Nabucco, King of Babylon defeats the Jews. His youngest daughter, Fenena falls in love with Ismaele, nephew to the King of Jerusalem. Meanwhile his elder daughter, Abigaille, discovers she isn't really his daughter at all but that of a slave. She of course is also in love with Ismaele
While Nabucco's away at war, Abigaille attempts a coup claiming he's dead. In the meantime Fenena has converted to Judaism, just as Nabucco has ordered all Jews to be killed. He's hit by a thunderbolt and loses his senses and Abigaille grabs the crown.
When Nabucco awakens from his madness, he sees the error of his ways, rescues Fenena from certain death at the last minute, tells the Jews a temple will be raised to their God, which all proves too much for Abigaille who poisons herself - sings her final aria and dies. The End.
Denis Krief's staging offers metallic structures which might to some look more like "interestingly" lit scaffolding lying on its side. But it has won rave reviews and plaudits from the cognescenti over the years and is supposed to represent the settings of the court of Babylon, its Hanging Gardens and Jerusalem.
What is slightly disconcerting in this production perhaps is that most of the “action” seems to take place somewhat off centre, so that the audience is as one, slightly twisted left in their seats.
The choreography is at times rather creepy, especially the almost goose-stepping marching into war. And the hairdos (or hairdon'ts) of Abigaille's "henchwomen" (and her own styled locks for one scene) look something like a tribute to rock star Rod Stewart's 1970s static-electricity charged and challenged coiffeur.
Rules. What rules?
At the best of times, opera crowds can be notoriously badly behaved in the sense that if they don’t like a performance they’ll have no hesitation in booing and hissing their disapproval at the end. And it hasn’t been unknown for a performer to march off stage in protest.
There was none of that at this performance, quite the opposite in fact as the Arena audience - a mix of those who love the music and those who come for the spectacle, or both - comes knowing what to expect and is seldom disappointed.
The organisers requests for the public to “abide by the rules” however only received in some circumstances, cursory acknowledgement.
While there was “no smoking” inside the Arena – it’s banned in public buildings throughout most of Europe – the appeal for mobile ‘phones to be turned off during the opera was only partially respected, as proven by the occasional muffled ring.
As for the request for no flash photography during the performance – well the organisers might just as well have whistled in the wind for all the notice that was taken.
Every time there was a scene change, it was accompanied by a barrage of flashing cameras. When a singer made an entry, it was to a flurry of clicking and mass beeping.
And the whole audience seemed to go into digital overload as the chorus shuffled eerily into place for “Va pensiero” before it launched into the enormous and celebrated rendition – complete with encore - accompanied by flash, flash, flash.
Even when a horse appeared on stage in Act II – yes the Arena likes live animals as it adds to realism apparently – there was another frenzy of shutters as though the audience had never seen a four legged beast before.
A voice to raise the roof
The whole principle of the Arena seems to be one of audience and performers alike enjoying themselves. In fact the whole atmosphere at an outdoor opera is not quite the same thing as at the great Houses, and the spectacle is far less rigid and more laid back.
So when Leo Nucci – appearing this season not only in the title role of Nabucco, but also Rigoletto – led the main singers hand in hand around the stage at the end of Acts I and II before each intermission, there was rapturous ovation and whoops of appreciation.
In fact it might seem unusual for the singers themselves to be orchestrating their own applause – that’s usually the prerogative of the lighting technicians – but it seemed to be very much par for the course during the opera.
Nucci might have had the biggest cheers of the night - he has had a long career as one of the world's leading baritones especially for his roles in Verdi operas. But the performance of the soprano Alessandra Rezza in the role of Abigaille, also had plenty of people sitting up and taking notice.
The 33-year-old has a large voice which would probably have been able to raise the roof off the place had there been one. And the sheer power was matched by the gentlest of touches in her closing aria as she died the inevitable death.
An event to relish
If you can stand the thought (or perhaps under the circumstances that should read “sit the thought) of numbed buttocks for a couple of hours then there are always the cheap seats on the amphitheatre’s stone steps. While you might feel a little like being up in the Gods of one of the major opera houses, the views are never restricted, even if you might be a little far away from the action, and you have a bird’s eye view. For a little extra comfort, you can also bring along or buy a cushion.
If you’re ready to break the bank (almost €200 a throw) and want some serious leg room on a padded seat, then you can be virtually sitting in the orchestra pit and feel almost at one with the singers.
You pay your price and take your pick, and certainly won’t be disappointed.
This version of Nabucco might not have had all the finesse that one of the world’s great opera houses might be able to afford a production, but that’s really open to discussion and a matter of opinion.
What can’t be denied is the sheer spectacle involved and how well the Arena does in producing an event to relish.. So much so that it could probably put on a musical version of a Japanese telephone directory and it would still be a delight to enjoy and savour. There really is little that can beat the atmosphere of opera performed à la belle étoile.
To follow: The day after a night at the opera