The monumental backdrops that normally fill the vast amphitheater stage have been replaced by dynamic 3D images broadcast on huge LED screens, recreating a Sicilian village or a Fellini-style film backlot.
The distancing rules meant that movable stage sets for stagehands had to be limited behind the cramped backstage of the Roman-era open-air amphitheater, sparking a reimagining of the 98th Verona Arena Opera Festival.
For this season, technology is replacing the sets the Arena is famous for, large enough to fill the expansive stage and engage even members of the audience sitting far away in the highest seats.
“We already understood last year in November that we had to have another plan, in the event that we could not use the large sets,” said Arena general manager Cecilia Gasdia. “After all, the Arena di Verona is used to putting on huge, somewhat pharaonic shows, with great artistic quality.”
Deputy Creative Director Stefano Trespidi enlisted the help of technical assistants from DWOK, an Italian company specializing in advanced video design that helped create the fully-virtual 2020 season premiere of La Scala and designed virtual sets for a production of “Aida” at the Sydney Opera House.
“They are both artists and technicians, and it’s not easy,” Trespidi said. “It’s a great innovation; innovations need time to take hold. The process that we have started today, we do not know where it will lead us. Of course, this will take us forward.
The opening season premiere on Friday was a double lineup of “Cavalleria rusticana” by Pietro Mascagni and “Pagliacci” by Ruggiero Leoncavallo, a production scheduled for the 2020 season that was never staged due to restrictions limiting performances to concerts. In fact, the wooden decors of last year’s “Cavalleria” remain unfinished in the cavernous workshop of the Arena on the outskirts of town, possibly reserved for a future edition.
Instead, a Sicilian village was created on 400 square meters of LED screens, with projections of a hill, a church facade and craggy buildings, all with three-dimensional depth. The moving clouds brought dynamism to the scene, as singers and actors ascended and descended a physical staircase and crossed a foreground filled with tables and chairs to create a central plaza.
While “Cavalleria rusticana” was nostalgically staged in black, white and gray, the cast of “Pagliacci” was dressed in bright technicolor costumes, against a more refined background inspired by a Fellini film set, and emphasizing the collision of real life and theater to opera.
The video component also includes cameo images from Italian museums in each of the five new operas, including “Aida”, “Nabucco” and “La Traviata”. The collaborations, notably with the Vatican Museum, the Uffizi and the Egyptian Museum in Turin, are intended as a gesture of solidarity with another cultural branch which also suffered from restrictions during the pandemic.
“They found this wonderful solution which works very well,” said tenor Yusif Eyvazof, who sings the role of Canio / Pagliaccio. “It’s really so beautiful to see that you can’t see it, it’s not a real setting. And the audience can see a real show, not just a concert. “
Eyvazof said the screens had an added advantage: “It’s very comfortable for the voice. It’s a wall, which also gives an acoustic support, and that’s very important in the Arena, because we sing outside.
Ongoing virus restrictions mean the arena, for now, can accommodate a maximum of 6,000 guests, up from the 13,500 before the pandemic. Orchestra musicians are separated by two-meter distances, the choir is spread across the stage left in the amphitheater like a Greek choir, and non-singing cast members wear masks when the stage gets crowded. .
For many in the crowd, just seeing live theater was a treat and the new technology a new element to absorb.
“Even when you are used to the big arenas, it’s still very beautiful,” said Guia Veronese, a regular at the arenas whose 8-year-old son sang in the Pagliacci boy choir. “It almost feels real at some point.”