The first magic moment comes well before the conductor raises his baton. Unless you have led a team onto the pitch at Wembley, or won the New Hampshire primaries, you are unlikely to have experienced anything quite like the wall of heady high spirits which hits you as you emerge from the entrance tunnel into the arena.
Filling the vast ellipse of the almost two-thousand-year-old Roman amphitheatre are fourteen thousand happy people, bubbling with joyous expectation of the spectacle which is to follow. Even the most dour of dusty-hearted opera purists cannot help but be uplifted.
Then the floodlights go down, the chaotic chatter quietens to a reverential whisper, and the enveloping dusk is pierced only by flickering candle flames as uncountable as the stars above. Magic again; for these special moments the Verona Festival remains without rival.
The list of unique assets continues. There is the inestimable advantage of the stage and auditorium, one of the largest of ancient amphitheatres which, though built for rather less refined spectacles (‘arena’ is Latin for sand, used in quantity after the slaughter of animals and gladiators) provides miraculously sympathetic acoustics. The elliptical form also seems to instil a sense which can best be described as resembling an embrace, bonding the audience however distant or disparate the individual members might be.
Then there is the benefit of being at the heart of one of the most beautiful of Italian cities. Verona is crammed with magnificent architecture and dazzlingly picturesque streets and squares. Surprisingly, the city seems scarcely deflected from a typically Italian dedication to living well and stylishly by the annual influx of festival visitors.
Enough of the spectacle, what of the music? Most performances reach high standards, with patches of stunning singing. For the (largely Italian) casts, to perform at Verona is still a special event, and there remains as an incentive to excellence the typically Italian expression of audience disapproval, instant and merciless. Besides, the younger singers know that they will be judged by more agents, casting directors and peers in one performance than usually would see them in a season.
Opinions vary concerning the best place to sit. All the seats we have booked are numbered and reserved (no queuing for hours and elbowing to seize the best of what remains), and a proportion are poltronissime gold, cushioned stalls seats, which we offer for a supplement. The rest are on the lowest tiers, the gradinate numerate, with clear sight lines, while plastic seating is mercifully interposed between you and the marble. Drawbacks are reduced leg room and distance from the stage.
Fly at c. 8.00am from London Gatwick to Verona (British Airways). Overnight Verona where all four nights are spent.
Visit the church of Sant’Anastasia with its Pisanello frescoes, and the spectacular medieval tombs of the ruling della Scala family. Take an introductory walk in Verona, passing through the beautiful streets and squares at the heart of the city, and visit the Romanesque church of San Fermo. Some free time; evening opera in the Arena, Carmen.
A walk leads to the Romanesque cathedral, then across the River Adige to the well-preserved Roman theatre. Alternatively, there are bus and train services offering the opportunity to see more of the region, perhaps Lake Garda or Venice. In the afternoon, visit the church of San Zeno, a major Romanesque church with sculpted portal and a Mantegna altarpiece. Evening opera in the Arena, Aida (1913 production).
The morning walk includes the Castelvecchio, a graceful medieval castle and fortified bridge, now housing an art museum. Lunch is at a privately owned villa in the countryside (by special arrangement). There is some free time; evening opera in the Arena, La Traviata.
Fly from Verona, arriving London Gatwick, arriving c. 12.30pm.
Dr Michael Douglas-Scott
Associate Lecturer in History of Art at Birkbeck College, specialising in 16th-century Italian art and architecture. He studied at the Courtauld and Birkbeck College, University of London and lived in Rome for several years. He has written articles for Arte Veneta, Burlington Magazine and the Journal of the Warburg & Courtauld Institutes.
Price, per person
Two sharing: £2,740 or £2,480 without flights. Single occupancy: £3,100 or £2,840 without flights.
3 opera tickets costing c. £300; flights (Euro Traveller) with British Airways (Airbus 320); travel by private coach; hotel accommodation; breakfasts; 1 lunch and 4 dinners with wine, water, coffee; all admissions; all tips; all taxes; the services of the lecturer.
Supplement for poltronissime gold seats: £275.
Tickets to 3 performances are included, costing c. £300.
Due Torri Hotel, Verona: a luxurious 5-star situated c. 20 minutes walk from the Arena (a shuttle is provided to and from the operas). Single rooms are double for sole use.
To participate fully in the itinerary, a fair amount of walking is involved. It is often very hot in Italy at this time of year. Average distance by coach per day: 18 miles.
Between 10 and 22 participants.
Before booking, please refer to the FCO website to ensure you are happy with the travel advice for the destination(s) you are visiting: www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice.
'Our lecturer was outstanding, absolutely superb in all aspects.'
'A once in a lifetime experience.'
'The three operas were fantastic and the arena was a fabulous venue.'
'Three wonderful operas in a magical setting. What more can you ask for?'
'This was one of the happiest of our MRT holidays due to our lecturer and our interesting and friendly companions.'
'Fabulous combination of spectacular opera and wonderful trips to museums and churches.'
'The music was spectacular – an amazing experience.'