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The Verona Arena, a massive outdoor Roman amphitheater built in the first century, is one of the most magical performance venues in the world. Andrea Prandstraller and Niccolo Bruna‘s documentary chronicles the creation of a recent production of Verdi’s Aida, which was the first opera to be performed there upon its modern-day performance debut in 1913. Given its world premiere at the Cairo International Film Festival — all too appropriate since it was presented in an opera hall in the country that provides the opera’s setting — Magic Arena is a compelling fly-on-the-wall, behind-the-scenes portrait that should prove catnip to opera lovers. The film is a natural for specialized distribution, and should find even bigger audiences in home-video formats.
The production, celebrating both the arena’s centenary and the bicentennial of the composer’s birth, is a distinctly unorthodox affair created by the Spanish avant-garde theater troupe Fura dels Baus. Early in the film, its artistic directors are seen addressing a massive gathering of the performers and backstage crew, promising them an “Aida for the new millennium.” Accordingly, as the production unfolds we see that it includes a large number of “mime artists” wearing spandex outfits and manipulating glowing orbs.
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The arena, the largest open-air of its type in existence, is located in one of Italy’s most charming and picturesque towns (it was, after all, the setting for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet), but the filmmakers forego providing a travelogue in favor of concentrating on the action at the venue. Besides detailing the hugely complex preparations for the opera from its first auditions until its opening performance, it profiles several of the people involved in the production. They include the assistant stage director, who describes how he built models of stage sets as a child; a trombonist, who talks about the difficulties of playing his instrument under varying weather conditions; and the head props man, a chorister and an extra.
The tension mounts as opening night looms, with a massive rainstorm nearly derailing the premiere. But in true show business tradition the show eventually goes on, and the spectacle of the some 15,000 spectators holding up the candles that have been provided for them — a Verona Arena tradition — well justifies the film’s title. Tickets for the arena’s summer productions are notoriously tough to come by, and should prove even more difficult to procure once the film introduces its wonders to a larger audience.
Production: Wide House, Le Talee
Directors: Andrea Prandstraller, Niccolo Bruna
Screenwriters: Agnese Fonatana, Andrea Prandstraller
Producer: Agnese Fontana
Directors of photography: Andrea Treccani, Massima Moschin
Editors: Luca Gasparini, Alberta Masi
No rating, 90 minutes
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