From Handball to Music – Macerata Opera at Sferisterio

Nearly 200 years ago in the Marche provincial town of Macerata, 100 of the good towns folk banded together to fund the building of a grand stadium, one that has become known as the Sferisterio Arena andone where the Macerata Opera Festivalis held.

Not surprisingly, this stadium was not built for culture, but for sport, for a sport that had its genesis in the renaissance era, the sport of ‘pallone col bracciale’ a form of handball that was the most popular sport in Italy for almost five centuries.

A secondary objective was to have an arena for circus performances and even bullfights. The architect Ireneo Aleandri was commissioned to design and build it in a neo-classical style using the good citizens’ money. Today one wonders whether they received advertising revenue to gain a return on their investment or charged the locals for entry.

The arena stands next to the old Porta Mercato gate. It is nearly 90 metres long and 18 metres high with a double tier of traditional boxes. When Pallone declined in popularity, the surface of the arena was levelled and calcio took over aided by tennis.

But it wasn’t until just 100 years ago that the idea of performing opera in this arena, the birth of the Macerata Opera Sferisterio was considered viable, interestingly in parallel to the rise of importance of calcio.

Yet opera had a slower rise to fame. What is today known as the Macerata Opera Festival began about 25 years ago and has a different theme each year. This year, the tragic heroines of opera, the belladonnas, have been remembered in three favourite operas. Our joy was to experience La Traviata on a fine mid-summer’s evening’.

As has become the fashion, from two hours before the event, the local Piazza Mazzini was packed with opera goers in their wide range of regalia, dining lightly and enjoying local Marche wines. When the doors opened 15 minutes before ’kick-off’, we climbed up to a grassed field to find our seat in row 6 near the right hand end of the stage (we read that the arena holds an audience of over 3,000 and the stage is 14.5 meters deep and 40 meters wide, with 10 meter wings each side of that).

Some 4 metres in front of our seats stand the great drums and a bevy of base brass instruments. We wonder about the acoustics and whether we will hear the violins, some 30 metres away, at all. Yet we should not have been concerned, despite or maybe because of unusual shape of the orchestra pit, the acoustics are surprisingly good.

The Macerata Sferisterio Opera perofrmance was of high calibre for an open air event and the stars all met our highest hopes, but none more so than the ’baritone villain’, Alfredo’s father, Giorgio, wonderfully rendered by Simone Piazzola. We were thrilled by the set design, each consisting of a large canvas filling the stage with the scene reflected in an equally large mirror held at an angle at the back of the stage, until the end of the performance when the mirror was raised for the audience to view themselves applauding vigorously.

For each such event, I seek to recall some small quirk of local flavour and for this fine evening, I recall three visual events. A single bat swept across and back above the stage (seeking insects in the stage lights?). The members of the orchestra in front of us proved their Italian heritage by virtually continuous, but unheard, chit-chat throughout the performance – maybe Verdi should have given them more to do. Finally we noted that not all forms of handball have died in Macerata, the town has the most successful volleyball team in Italy – have they ever played in the Arena?

It was a long but pleasant climb up the stairs to the Piazza della Libertà and our hotel, Claudiani, but we were able to enjoy a post-prandial at 1am in the open air of the square to aid a drift into somnambulance. An excellent event and worth returning to the Macerata OperaFestival in Sferisterio.