There were two things I hadn’t anticipated going into the Thursday performance of Turandot at the Arena di Verona. The first was a rain delay. The possibility is always in the back of your mind for open-air theater, but the reality doesn’t hit until you’re settling your dinner tab right before heading to the performance, and suddenly there’s a thirty-minute downpour. In the end, it was no catastrophe: staff walked around with industrial-sized rolls of paper towels to wipe down seats, and after a fifteen-minute delay, the opera began. They’ve dealt with this before.
The other surprise was seeing the Metropolitan Opera’s production on the stage in Verona. Well, not exactly the same production, but boy, is it close. Franco Zeffirelli created the production for the Verona festival in 2010, and it appears to be largely a reworking of what he made for the Met back in 1987. In the era of co-productions (hardly anything goes up anywhere now without at least three companies kicking in a chunk of the cost), a traveling operagoer has to be prepared to encounter a familiar staging, but one wouldn’t usually expect to see one company’s ancient repertory staple reproduced on another continent.
Sitting in a two-thousand-year-old amphitheater while a full chorus and orchestra blare at you about immortality is hard to resist.
At any rate, there’s no denying the spectacular appeal of Zeffirelli’s design. His vision brings an Italian Baroque sensibility to a Chinese legend, aweing viewers with towers of gold. There is a tradeoff here: so set is Zeffirelli on situating the opera in a land and time of distant myth, the characters feel remote, their emotions difficult to relate to. Still, sitting in a two-thousand-year-old amphitheater while a full chorus and orchestra blare at you about immortality is hard to resist.
The Arena di Verona has been hosting operatic performances for more than a century, and its annual festival is one of the main summer operatic attractions in Europe, if not quite as “high-brow” as some place like Bayreuth. Since 2011, the Arena has used a subtle acoustic enhancement system, mostly for the benefit of viewers on the stone benches way up at the top, but it’s barely detectable on the floor. The singers and the orchestra sound as natural as in any enclosed theater, which is a remarkable achievement.
Rain wasn’t Thursday’s only contingency: the soprano Anna Pirozzi, appearing as the princess of the title, wasn’t feeling her best, we were warned. Aside from seeming to rein in her volume a hair out of caution, she sounded unaffected, delivering “In questa reggia” with a ferocity that didn’t pierce. Her duet with Calaf, exchanging the riddles that he must solve to win her hand, was bracing: two powerful voices, singing aggressive music, backed by intense orchestral playing.
Murat Karahan showed off a strong, ringing tenor as Calaf, though he could have used a bit more attention to detail. His phrasing was a little blocky, which was fine for much of the role, but it led to a fairly rote (even if vocally impressive) performance of the marquee aria “Nessun dorma.” It was the pit that provided most of the color, as the conductor Daniel Oren conjured velvet breezes and built to a soaring climax. Throughout the performance, in fact, the orchestra was exemplary, channeling the mystique of Puccini’s score with focused fire or warm sighs.
Liù, the faithful servant who harbors a secret love for Calaf, is the kind of role that can often stand out in a performance of Turandot, given the right soprano. Eleonora Burratto’s caramel tone was just about ideal, and she delivered her two arias with earnest passion—the second, “Tu che di gel sei cinta,” in which she confronts Turandot’s cruelty, was especially moving.
But the core of the experience at the Arena is the venue itself. It verges on the surreal, sitting under the open sky on the floor of a first-century gladiatorial arena that’s transformed for an evening into an Italian opera house with screams of “bravo maestro,” “bis,” the whole bit. Thursday’s 9:00 p.m. start time (plus delay) meant that the chorus sang their pleas to the moon just as it was beginning to peek out above the rear wall of the arena—almost too good to be true.