Turandot at the Arena di Verona

Spectacle is what the Arena di Verona does best, spectacle is what the late Franco Zefferelli did best, Turandot is an opera that lends itself to spectacle like no other. Ergo . . .

It was Turandot in its full glory (August 13) with a cast well up to its vocal challenges, and a conductor, Francesco Ivan Ciampi, who unleashed a verismo that shone through the visual splendors of the production. 

This 2022 edition of the Puccini masterwork at « the world’s largest outdoor theater » remounts Franco Zeffirelli’s now famed 2010 production for the Arena di Verona. The great Zeffirelli productions endure —  his 1987 Metropolitan Opera Turandot production remains in the Met repertoire to this day.

Typically at the Arena di Verona staging is abstracted to the most minimal terms allowing the carousel casting that alternates opera’s biggest international names with viable singers and conductors on the European circuit. I attended the fourth of seven performances. The first three boasted Russian diva Anna Netrebko as Turandot and Yusif Eyvazov as Calaf — a real life married couple, now operatically wed as well. Marco Armiliato was the conductor. The sixth performance (August 26) will find Placido Domingo in the pit!

Oksana Dyka as Turandaot, Samuel Simonicini as Calaf, Carlo Bosi as the Emperor

Four different Calaf tenors were announced for the run of performances. Even so, in the play of musical chairs the Calaf originally announced for my evening was replaced by Italian tenor Samuel Simonicini, who possesses nearly everything an Italian tenor needs — most of all he has a good, solid “squillo” (ringing tone)! Unfortunately in his big third act aria “Nessun dorma,” standing alone in the center of the stage, he was tempted, understandably, to sing to the last row of the theater (at least a quarter mile away), thus losing some of his vocal focus. This did not diminish the huge, grateful ovation we awarded him.

At maximum capacity the Arena di Verona hosts almost 16,000 spectators for opera. Without walls and ceiling there is only a natural acoustic. I have always been seated within a hundred feet or so of center stage, from where I hear the real voices of the singers, though not loudly — a very great pleasure quite unlike opera houses where the acoustic of the hall comes into play. The furthest reaches of the arena’s massive bleacher seating are at least ten times this distance, and are always packed with opera lovers from throughout Europe. They too are surely aurally rewarded in their way as well.

With the departure of la Netrebko the Turandot role was taken over by Ukrainian diva Oksana Dyka. Mme. Dyka brought all required stature to the icy princess, if not with the symbolic and actual fire power of the Russian diva. La Dyka possesses a steely, lyric voice that sailed unwaveringly through Puccini and Alfano’s massive orchestration. Turandot in Verona Is usually surrounded by 50 or 100 dancers, sword carriers and standard bearers, plus an adoring chorus of an un-countable number. She is hugely costumed, wigged and made-up. Though she is of little personality she is of maximum monumentality –– through to her final utterance, the word “amor!”

Ruth Iniesta as Liu, Riccardo Fassi as Timur

The simply dressed slave girl Liu on the other hand is left quite alone on the stage to sing her Act I aria, “Signore, ascolta.” The role was beautifully and sensitively sung by Spanish soprano Ruth Iniesta at the performance I attended, achieving an expressive monumentality that surely sailed into the furthest reaches of the Arena. The heart rending role of Calaf’s father blinded father Timur was sung by Italian bass Riccardo Fassi, though the role largely disappeared into the crowds on the stage.

Ping, Pang and Pong, sung by Gëzim Myshketa, Ricardo Rados and Marreo Mezzaro, were declaimed center stage, all intimacy of discussion eschewed in the interest of informing the story to the thousands of spectators. Their voices were big, not the character voices that usually bring great charm to their scenes. The emperor was sung by Carlo Bosi at the performance I attended. Legendary Rossini tenor Chris Merritt sings the role at the final two performances!

Michael Milenski

Turandot, Arena di Verona, August 13, 2022. All photos copyright Ennivi Foto, courtesy of the Arena di Verona.