Verona's venerable opera winds down a rousing season

Spanish tenor Placido Domingo was the major attraction at this summer's festival, with his five performances in `Otello' and as conductor of `Aida'

VERONA, a beautiful Italian city already rendered romantic as the home of Shakespeare's great lovers, Romeo and Juliet, comes alive in July and August with its open-air opera festival.

The spectacular site of the performances is the world's third-largest existing Roman amphitheater, the Arena.

The structure majestically dominates the city center, lends its name to the local daily newspaper, and becomes a summertime Mecca for opera-loving tourists.

Hotels are booked during the season, and the city's restaurants and stores are jammed with tourists - especially Germans taking advantage of the current favorable exchange rate between the deutsche mark and the Italian lira.

Although the doors open at 7 p.m. for the 9 p.m. August concerts, astute visitors to the $20 economy section (which consists of unassigned seats in the upper tiers of the stadium) begin gathering at least an hour before that, so they can make a dash for their preferred section. With Italy's scorching summer heat this year, they seek out the doors protected by the shade or stand at the sun-drenched entrances, protecting themselves with opened umbrellas.

The Arena itself, built about 1,900 years ago, is extremely well preserved, especially compared with its more famous cousin, the Rome Colosseum, which was sacked over the centuries and wracked by earthquakes and remains today but a shell of its former glory.

Once you get inside, you'll find a show has already begun, even if you're two hours early; before the concerts and during the intermissions, the ambience is reminiscent of a night game of American baseball.

Young people thread through the crowd hawking programs and libretti. Others offer drinks or panini (sandwiches) or gelati (ice cream). One young woman selling ice cream throws herself into the spirit of this pre-opera entertainment and punctuates her cries every so often with a boisterous ``yoo-hoo.'' She keeps the audience amused, though not to any perceptible improvement in revenues.

Other salesmen rent cushions at a nominal $1.50, which anyone who has sat on the Arena's marble for hours at a stretch will tell you is a wise investment. And still others sell the little candles that members of the audience hold during the performance. It's a tradition that dates back to the first festival in 1913. The lighting of these candles, creating flickering specks of light around the amphitheater, is a simple act that seems to draw the entire audience closer to each other and to the performers.

If you happen to go on a night when there are a number of more vocal and cynical Italians in the stands, you will likely witness their sardonic and spirited applause, whistles, and comments as the elegantly dressed patrons enter the field below, looking for their $100 to $140 seats. Most of the latter either ignore the catcalls or show signs of being ill at ease, but others with a more puckish sense of humor turn and graciously bow and curtsy to their ``admirers.''

The highlight of this opera season was the appearance of Spanish tenor Placido Domingo five times as Otello, once as the conductor of ``Aida,'' and as the star of a special internationally broadcast performance of the first act of ``Otello,'' the third act of ``Aida,'' and the third act of ``La Boheme.'' A crowd of 15,545 people went wild at the special show, applauding for 30 minutes afterward.

This year's season includes Vincenzo Bellini's ``Norma,'' Giacomo Puccini's ``La Boheme,'' and Giuseppe Verdi's ``Aida,'' ``Nabucco,'' and ``Otello.''

The Monitor's mid-August visit took in an unenthusiastically received ``Otello'' (without Mr. Domingo) and a rousing ``Norma.'' The lighting for both operas was subdued, with many of the minor characters nearly shrouded in shadows.

WHAT is most impressive about the Arena is its acoustics. Even in the farthest seats one hears the orchestra and singers perfectly, without any modern-day amplification. One of the questions that troubled the first sponsors of the 1913 festival was whether it would be possible to hear the music in the stands. Legend has it that one man sat on the stage and flipped through a newspaper while another went to the other end of the Arena, where he heard the rustling pages perfectly.

``Aida'' is by far the most-performed opera in the festival's history. It has become so synonymous with opera in Verona that the locals ask each other, in dialect, ``What aida is playing tonight?,'' and the answer may be ``Rigoletto,'' ``Tosca,'' or ``Carmen.''

* Tickets are still available for the last remaining performances. They are: ``Nabucco,'' Aug. 31; ``Otello,'' Sept. 1; ``Boheme,'' Sept. 2; ``Nabucco,'' Sept. 3. For information concerning next year's operas (including ``Aida,'' Georges Bizet's ``Carmen,'' and a special concert by Jose Carreras), write to Ente Arena, Piazza Bra 28, 37121 Verona, Italy.

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