I have been to several outdoor opera venues, but none begins to come close to the experience of the opera at the Arena di Verona.
First off is the location itself. The Arena di Verona is not a ruin. It is an intact piece of the Roman era. True it is missing its outer wall except for a small portion. It is missing its decorative marble facade. But there it is, sitting right in the middle of Piazza Bra! Not only is it a tourist visit destination, but it is home to a superb opera festival every summer. The tickets are easy to buy through their website (www.arena.it) or, even easier, by phone and fax.
Opera is Not Miked
The essential thing about the Arena is that it is outdoor opera that is not miked. This is the bane of outdoor opera. An opera singer singing thru a body mike has to moderate his or her voice to take full advantage of the sound system. Or their mike has to be turned down so low that the folks in the back can’t hear. But the acoustics of the Arena are so superb that no miking is used at all. There are dead spots on the stage (and these vary depending on where you sit). In fact, I would put listening to opera at the Arena on a par with the Met in NY (not quite as precise but louder in the cheap seats than the Met) and better than the old Kennedy Center Opera House acoustically.
Next up is the seating. It comes in three flavors: reserved on the floor, reserved on the side and nosebleed general admission seats on the original Roman seating. The reserved seating on the floor is in two sections and the first is much better than the second, but also a lot more expensive. If it’s a favorite opera with a super cast (e.g. Turandot with Cura and Casole) pop for the good seats. On the other hand, Nabucco seen from above was just fine. You need to get to the GA seats by about 7:30 to get good seats. It helps if you have your 75 year old mother in law and she looks a little tired. The ushers found room for us only five rows up on the second time we went, arriving at about 8:00pm. The first time, we arrived at 8:30 and sat five rows from the top.
You have to pick up your candle from a box, unmarked, on the stairs. The tradition is to light the candles as the opera begins. It’s beautiful but we heard many a person cry “Ouch!” as the hot wax hit their fingers.
In the nosebleed section, there are vendors selling Nestle’s ice cream (not gelato), pizze and panini, and drinks: beer, coca, fanta, tonic or wine. No water. Bring your own.
If it rains before the opera begins, you get a refund. After the first note – tough luck. The rain hit when we were there about a third of the way thru the last act of Aida. You never saw anyone move so fast carrying so much as the harpists and bassists when the rain was hitting their instruments. Licitra’s voice had not even died out and they were already off the stage. And if it does rain, you will get wet trying to get out. Italians don’t do lines well.
It will be lovely. This is opera with a tough crowd. They collectively know their stuff. Great singing will be applauded and the crowd will call for a bis for the superb. (A bis is where the singer repeats his aria, or in the case of Nabucco, the chorus repeated “Va Pensero”.) The second singing will be “out of character”, the singer will just stand and sing rather than act out his or her part. Licitra sang a beautiful Celeste Aida but did not get a call for a bis while Cura’s Nessun Dorma did get it. Even though Cura’s singing was not technically perfect, his acting was so superb that it merited a bis and he got it.
Getting There and Parking
Just follow the signs for Centro. It’s best if you are coming in from out of town to use the Verona Nord exit from the A22 and come in from the west. You are on limited access roads almost all the way into town. You will get on a strada marked Montova Verona and take the Verona exit. You will just veer left a couple of times before you hit signage which will direct you in through the Porta Nuova.
Exiting from the A4 and coming north is also pretty easy, but can be very trafficky. Driving south from the Valpolicella into town means having to come through the centro first, difficult but not impossible.
We parked twice in the covered parking lot “Arena” for 12 euro. Another time we parked on the street on the way to the arena lot. The difficulty with the street parking was backing out into the traffic.
Dining Before and After the Opera
We have explored a number of options and dined better than we have in other touristy places like Piazza Rotunda in Roma or in the Piazza del Mercato Centrale in Firenze. Verona is a serious food city! But be warned, there are a lot of places on Piazza Bra that had very insipid looking food at very high prices.
Hotel Rubiani: If you want very good food served on a lovely patio, go to Hotel Rubiani. Its on a side street just off the Piazza. Find Cantina dell’Arena and turn left as you are facing the Arena; it’s straight ahead on the right. We dined well with a nice bottle of Muller Thurgau from the Alto Adige producer St Michael Eppian. Dinner was around 65 euro. We each had a carpaccio antipasto; mine was octopus and Kay’s was pesca spada (swordfish). Our paste were taglioletti all’Ortolana loaded with delicious summer veggies and spaghetti ai gamberetti e zucchini. Both were great. Don’t know if it’s open after the opera. It starts serving at 6:00 pm.
Cantina dell’Arena: Right on Piazza Bra, although we ate outdoors on a side street. Good food, not great, but the wine list is superb. We enjoyed Quintarelli Valpolicella and Bussola Amarone at very good pricing. We dined there twice, once the three of us and once in a group of 16. Both times were a lot of fun and even with the large group they took very good care of us allowing us to order alla carte for a large group. Their pizze are good to very good, but I would stick to the simple items. Best of all was Sfilacci di Cavallo which is a shredded jerky like product made from horse meat served on a bed of arugula. I had an insalata mista di mare which was marred by the inclusion of fake krab but otherwise delicious. A salad of potatoes and octopus was good. Costolette d’Angello was good and the potatoes incredible. The first dinner was $150.00 but that included about $70 in wine. Open before and after the opera.
Enoteca Cangrande: Before or after the opera. What a find! Find Oliva or Olivo on the Piazza Bra and follow the alley way back a short block or two and you will run directly into Cangrande. It looks pretty seedy from the outside but the empty bottles of Dal Forno Romano are a sure tip off. Run by Marco, with a shaved head and pierced eyebrow, this was both entertaining and wonderful. Fabiola is the fabulous South American waitress who gives great service but is no wine expert. Superb wine selection. Best to go to the far back room and just pull the bottle off the shelf. Or better yet, let Marco recommend something for you. Discovered Raimondi Amarone this way. We had a cheese and meat plate one night before the opera with a bottle of superb Amarone (whose producer name I forgot to write down!!!!!).
The highlight was the gorgonzola, vezanna (a mountain veronese cheese somewhere between a good gruyere and parmiggiano in texture) and tomino both fresco and stagionata. The meats featured the best lardo I have ever had. Also a wonderful cooked ham and local veronese prosciutto. We started out with a piece of 100 day old gorg then they brought us 300 day old gorgonzola. Heavenly.
After the opera that night, we returned and had bocconcini which were little rolls of bread, split and topped with an assortment of things: Gorgonzola and mostarda, lardo and mushrooms, cavallo and speck. Marco picked out wines and we were happy. We bought 4 bottles so I don’t really remember the breakdown of food to wine price wise. They have a limited menu in addition to meats and cheeses. We will return again but in the mid evening to explore this option. Open 5 pm to 1 am.
Other Things to do in Verona
We only spent part of a day wandering the town. But one thing stood out as a superb visit: the Castelvecchio museum. The castle was given a refurbishing by architect Scarpa and it is a stunning space for art. The castle was left mostly intact but the exhibition space was created using simple concrete poured in rough forms, left undecorated. For example, there is a statue of Cangrande on a huge concrete beam suspended in space. You see it twice, once from below and then later from the same level. There are also special exhibitions there and we loved the one we saw.