A night at the opera

We initially came across the place way back in 2009 on our first fact-finding tour of Le Marche when we spent a couple of nights in the large hilltop town of Macerata. Our room in the tiny hotel looked straight out onto a section of enormously tall, blank brick wall which a quick look at the city street map told us was the rear of Lo Sferisterio. A similarly quick look in our well-thumbed Lonely Planet guide told us this large outdoor arena hosted a major opera festival every summer, but as it turned out we had missed the month-long event for that year, we just mentally logged it as an interesting thing to have in the vicinity should we happen to end up in that neck of the woods.

The place remained on our radar, though, especially as the regular holidays we started to take in the area often included a good mooch among the honey-toned palazzi in Macerata’s historical centre and maybe a meal in one of its bustling piazze. However, since these trips were typically timed to coincide with a blacksmithing event in Tuscany that is always held in September, we were still always too late for the opera festival. But over time – and certainly once we had decided this was the part of Le Marche we wanted to move to – we did at least find out a little more about this unique venue.

Lo Sferisterio resembles an ancient Roman arena – albeit an elongated one that has been sliced in half lengthways by an 18m-high wall – but it was actually built in the 1820s. Its name is derived from the Latin word sphaeristerium which in Roman times was the term for a large open space dedicated to ball games and often formed part of a complex including baths. And as such, rather than hosting gladiatorial contests, chariot races or executions, its primary purpose was as a venue for the then very popular sport of pallone col bracciale (‘ball with bracelet’). This game, which could be described as some kind of a cross between tennis, squash and handball is thought to have originated in about the 16th century. Although there are several variations, it normally involves teams of three players hitting a solid, leather ball back and forth, not with rackets or bats, but with a spiked wooden cuff (or bracelet) that extends from the fist to the middle of the forearm. It was effectively Italy’s national sport until the early 20th century when football started to take over, eventually leaving just a handful of places where it is still played – including, incidentally, the pretty town of Treia, which is under 20km from Macerata. Despite the sport’s continued popularity locally, however, Macerata’s Sferisterio gradually fell into decline as a pallone col bracciale venue, but at the start of the 1920s, its surprisingly good acoustics were discovered, quite by chance, apparently. As a result, the arena was quickly converted into an outdoor music venue and its first production, Verdi’s Aida, was staged there in 1921, although the internationally renowned Sferisterio Opera Festival of today wasn’t formally established until 1967.

This unique venue still never got any further than our radar, though, even after we ended up living within sight of Macerata’s domes and towers that stand silhouetted against the skyline barely 12km to the west of us. The 2018 season, during our first full summer here, coincided with a final overland trip to the UK to tie up the remaining loose ends of our transfer to Italy, while the demolition of the pigsty and the building of the first section of the wrap-around terrace meant that the 2019 season passed us by too. The 2020 season was cancelled all together because of the Covid-19 pandemic, and although the 2021 season ran with limited capacity, we still didn’t feel comfortable going to large public events at that stage. But when my nephew, a professional conductor, and his partner, a proficient organist as well as a doctor, said they wanted to come and stay with us at the end of July – ie slap-bang in the middle of this year’s festival – we had the best reason possible to get our act together and finally book tickets. Better still, of this year’s trio of operas, it was Puccini’s Tosca, a personal favourite of all of us, that was the one that coincided with their visit.

And the experience was every bit as magical as we had hoped as we found ourselves sitting beneath the star-sprinkled sky in this 3,000-seater arena with its spectacularly lit Doric-style columns running around the long, curved side that houses two tiers of boxes and below them, the huge, fan-shaped main auditorium. What really makes it a venue completely unlike any other though, is the mighty forty-metre-wide stage that spreads out in front of the vast and imposing wall that forms the arena’s straight side and thus provides an arresting backdrop to every performance. All of which, effectively of necessity, results in productions unlike any other too. And this particular telling of Tosca, with its timeless themes of love, betrayal, politics and power, was certainly nothing like any that the four of us had ever seen before – but also much more current, gripping and heart-wrenching than any that the four of us had ever seen before…

Like all good stories, to be continued…

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