Wednesday, 8 July 2009

An adaptable stage

The Renaissance had a major influence on Italian, European, and even world culture back in the 15th and 16th centuries. But it wasn’t only in the fields of the arts, humanities, and sciences, it also played a significant role in the development of popular sport in Italy. Born in the noble palaces of Tuscany, and based on a combination of tennis and an ancient Greco-Roman game, il pallone col bracciale became the most popular sport of north and central Italy from the late 17th century until as late as around 1930. Using spiked wooden armlets, a leather ball was pounded back and forth between two teams of three, with a high wall on one side permitting deflection back into the field of play.

Such was its popularity that it spawned full-time professionals, massive followings – Goethe wrote about it, Leopardi eulogized it – particularly in the Piedmont, Emilia-Romagna, and Le Marche, and special courts called sferisteri (singular sferisterio = ball court) were built throughout its popular realm. With legendary players coming out of Le Marche – notably Treia – it was natural to build such a sferisterio here, and in 1820 one hundred citizens raised the money, with construction starting in October according to the designs of one Salvatore Innocenzi. However, these were soon supplanted by those of a young architect from San Severino Marche, Ireneo Aleandri, and it was finally inaugurated on September 5th, 1829.

The prescribed dimensions for the high wall that borders one side of a sferisterio required a height of between 14 and 20 metres (Macerata’s is 18m), and a length of around 90 metres (Macerata’s is 88m). It also needed to be on the west side of the court to prevent the players from being disturbed by the rays of a setting sun (the game was played in the afternoon). The arena was also used for other activities such as circuses and an Italian form of bullfighting, which was a popular Papal State “sport”.

Upon the decline of pallone col bracciale’s popularity, the citizens of Macerata turned their attention to putting the arena to other uses, and in 1921, a group led by Pieralberto Conti, with funding provided by the soprano Francisca Solari, staged Aida – it was a resounding success, with over 70,000 seeing the production. However, rain ruined the following season’s production of La Gioconda, and following this failure opera in the arena stopped. Save for a few highly successful concerts in the late ’20s and early ’30s by Le Marche’s adored tenor Beniamino Gigli, the Sferisterio stood operatically idle until 1967, when Carlo Perucci from San Benedetto del Tronto breathed new life into it through his Circuito lirico delle Marche initiative. A new stage was built – it’s now one of the largest in Europe – new lighting was installed, and today’s annual opera season was born with the acclaimed production on August 3rd 1967 of Verdi’s Otello. Today it’s one of the most important on the Italian operatic calendar, and is arguably Le Marche’s (and certainly Macerata’s) leading cultural event of the year.

In 1992 the Eredi dei Cento Consorti (Heirs of the Hundred Consorts, a civil society), the provincial administration, and the associated comuni joined forces to form Associazione Arena Sferisterio, which today is responsible for the annual Sferisterio Opera Festival (also known as Macerata Opera). Over the years it’s attracted leading singers such as Luciano Pavarotti and Placido Domingo, and directors such as Ken Russell, Franco Zeffirelli, and Macerata’s own Dante Ferretti.

Since 2006, artistic director Pier Luigi Pizzi has introduced a common theme in the operas selected for each season, in 2009 selecting “deceit” to follow the previous years’ themes of “an initiating journey”, “the game of the mighty”, and “seduction”. “Among the multiple meanings of the word ‘deceit’,” says Pizzi, “we want to analyze those deeper and more painful ones: behind every deceit is a vital tension, and the same sense of life is provided by the constant presence of death. Don Giovanni consciously makes light of death, but he cannot escape the eternal damnation that he is destined for. Madame Butterfly is an innocent victim of the deceit contrived by the cynical Pinkerton that leads to her suicide. Only through death is she able to regain her lost honour, through cathartic purification. Violetta (La Traviata) is deceived by Alfredo Germont’s hypocritical father and yields to his shameful blackmail, accepting with dignity her tragic and desperate destiny. Her only redemption is death itself – sure, inexorable, even consolatory. Also the contemporary opera, an annual event initiated with my commission – which for this edition will be Camus’ Le Malentendu (The Misunderstanding), a text of great drama and topical interest – adheres well to the underlying theme through a dramatic core that suggests a dizzying intertwining of illusion and death. Deceptive obsessions cross the centuries, as in the culminating piece of the festival, Händel’s oratorio The Triumph of Time and Truth.”

2009 Programme:

Don Giovanni – Mozart

Sferisterio – Jul 23, 28, 30

Director: Pier Luigi Pizzi

Conductor: Riccardo Frizza

Madama Butterfly – Puccini

Sferisterio – Jul 24, 31; Aug 2, 5, 7

Director: Pier Luigi Pizzi

Conductor: Daniele Calligari

La Traviata – Verdi

Sferisterio – Jul 25; Aug 1, 4, 6, 8

Director: Massimo Gasparon

Conductor: Michele Mariotti

Le Malentendu – Matteo d’Amico

CineTeatro Italia – Jul 26, 29

Director: Saverio Marconi

Conductor: Guillaume Tourniaire

The Triumph of Time and Truth – Händel

Auditorium San Paolo – Aug 9

Director: Pier Luigi Pizzi

Conductor: Dan Rapoport

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