A night at the opera

by Alexandra


My first opera was not a success. I was on my own in Vienna, and I bought a €3 ticket for Tosca. A €3 ticket for the opera has to have a downside, and the downside was this – a 2 hour queue to buy the ticket, and no seat during the performance. Standing for the entire duration of a 3 hour opera when you’re already worn out from queuing, sightseeing and sleeping in a noisy hostel is not for the faint of heart.

I wasn’t faint of heart, but I did faint. Approximately ten minutes into Tosca, I woke up on the floor. As I recovered in the lobby, I realised that there was no question of going back inside. I was still feeling weak and light-headed, and the prospect of reclaiming my floor space in the auditorium wasn’t very appealing. I left the opera house and trudged through the snow, back to my noisy hostel.

My “ten minutes of Tosca” disappointment made me determined to go back to the opera one day, on the condition that I had a seat.

When I moved to Rome, I daydreamed about going to the opera at the Terme di Caracalla in the summer. Every summer the performances are transferred from the opera house to the Terme di Caracalla – some amazing Roman baths which are worth visiting in their own right. I loved the idea of Roman ruins being used as the backdrop for an opera, and “going to the opera at the Terme di Caracalla” was number one on my Rome bucket list.

Unfortunately, my first two summers in Rome were spent in London, which meant I missed out on the opera. But this summer I’ve been enjoying Rome in all its sweaty glory, and I’ve finally had the opportunity to go to Caracalla.

On Thursday night I went to see The Barber of Seville with my friend Julia. We were in the cheap seats (€25 ), but a cheap seat with a restricted view of the stage is undoubtedly better than no seat with a view of people’s feet. And we didn’t even have to stay in our seats. The performance wasn’t sold out, so everyone in the audience was playing an elaborate game of musical chairs just seconds before the start of the show – rushing to grab the best seats, which hadn’t sold.

I enjoyed the opera, though I struggled to follow the story at points – torn between reading the Italian and English subtitles, which were both partially obscured. I loved the bright colour scheme and the kitsch Hollywood theme, and there was never a dull moment. Opera purists might complain about the acoustics and say that the setting has nothing to do with the opera, but there’s undeniably something special about watching any kind of theatrical performance in such an inherently theatrical setting. The walls of the Terme di Caracalla are absolutely massive, towering above the stage. At one point flashes of lightning were projected on the ruins, at another point they seemed to ripple with water.

I think my only complaint is the volume of the music. I like the feeling of being completely surrounded by music, having it pulse it through you. I don’t know if it’s intentional – perhaps to avoid damaging the ruins – but the volume and quality of the music was lower than expected. It’s a problem with the sound system, not the performers.

I’d be interested to see an opera at the opera house next time, just to compare the sound. I’d particularly like to visit the opera house in Naples, as one of my ancestors on my mother’s side was the conductor at the opera house, while his wife was an opera singer.

Finally, an observation about audience behaviour – appalling. The moment the music stopped, a third of the audience rushed towards the exit, rather than waiting to applaud the people who had been performing for them for the past three hours. The orchestra, singers and dancers at Caracalla were fantastic and deserved a lengthy applause. For a few people to trickle out early is one thing, but the abrupt evacuation of a few hundred people? I’ve never seen anything like it. Somehow, I can’t imagine it happening in London.

A British expat friend commented: “I find theatre trips in Rome a bit embarrassing. Audiences are often ignorant, standing up to leave during the final applause, or chatting while the actors are still taking their bows. They act as if they were in the cinema rather than an interactive space where the performers can actually see you. Not cool!

Complete cafoni, in my opinion. But Roman rudeness is a topic for another day…