Imagine a balmy July evening, watching Giuseppe Verdi's A da amid the torch-lit red-brick ruins of Rome's ancient Baths of Caracalla. The ultimate in operatic spectacles, down to the horse-drawn chariots on stage, Rome Opera's production of A da is a performance music lovers shouldn't miss.
If you're big on opera, this could be your lucky year. With the Italian lira down 30% against the dollar since last year, the summer could be a great time to take in some spectacular opera festivals. Staged in picturesque hill towns, ancient theaters, medieval ports, and outdoor ruins, from the sunny shores of Sicily to the northern Dolomites, the festivals provide a chance to hear bel canto in the land where it began.
Rome's festival, running from June 20 until Aug. 20, takes place in a setting once famous throughout the ancient world, the ornate baths built by Roman Emperor Caracalla in 212 A.D. Now, the massive ruins provide a perfect backdrop every summer for operas, ballets, and concerts. This year the opera program includes A da, Turandot, and Tosca.
RARE ROSSINI. Just north of Rome, the old and new worlds converge at the Festival dei Due Mondi in the medieval Umbrian hill town of Spoleto. Founded in 1958 by composer Gian Carlo Menotti, the Spoleto festival usually has a strong American presence--probably because of the close link with "Spoleto USA," begun in Charleston, S.C., in 1977. A launching pad for young artists, Spoleto-Italia is an extravaganza of opera, concerts, dance, drama, and film. This year's festival runs from June 19 until July 18 and features two operas: Puccini's Il Trittico, and Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress.
Hard-core opera buffs might consider a trip to the Adriatic coast city of Pesaro, the birthplace of Rossini and home of the annual Rossini Opera Festival. The 13-year-old event is known for staging obscure Rossini operas, along with better-known works by the prolific 19th-century composer. This year, Armida, featuring newly uncovered material, tops the bill. Also of interest is a concert featuring 13 rare Rossini arias.
Not too far from Pesaro is the ancient Byzantine capital mf Ravenna, with its magical mosaic-filled churches. Tenor Luciano Pavarotti performs a special recital on July 21 at the scenic waterfront.
FARM CHARM. For the sheer grandeur of big opera, nothing can compete with Verona. The city's romantic, ancient heart is home to one of the best-preserved Roman amphitheaters in existence--the Arena di Verona--and one of the most famous opera festivals in Europe. The event, which starts on July 2 and runs until Aug. 31, features five operas: Cavalleria Rusticana, Pagliacci, Carmen, La Traviata, and A da. Tenor Placido Domingo will sing Canio in Pagliacci.
Accommodations range from rustic inns to castles to four-star hotels. In some towns, it's virtually impossible to find a room as the festivals draw near. An economical alternative is agriturismo--staying at a farm, inn, or home in the countryside. For information, call 001-396-685-2342.
You sometimes can pick up tickets at the box office on performance day. But in a country synonymous with opera, it makes sense to book in advance. For information, call the Italian Tourist Office (212 245-4822). And don't forget to take opera glasses.