It was only last year that the open-air evening popular with both locals and tourists returned to these most impressive ruins. Covid had restricted the festival to the Circus Maximus, then finally–after the closure in 2020 and 2021–the city reclaimed the charismatic setting of the baths. A sigh of relief made almost a prayer of thanksgiving by Leonard Bernstein's ‘Mass,’ combining the chorus with rock and blues musicians. A success and a gamble directed by Damiano Michieletto.
But this year the Opera House is raising the stakes. The Summer Season of 2023 is a festival that goes beyond opera. Fifty performances, from June to August, only two operas; then will be jazz, pop, great symphonic music, film, theater and dance. The space has been doubled, which among other things allows visitors to discover another piece of this vast imperial complex. In addition to the 4,500-seat arena next to the ancient baths (the world-famous setting), spectators will enjoy the stage of the Portico Theater, in the area of what is known as the “Temple of Jupiter”. ‘Known as’ because this antiquarian name of unknown origin is completely made up. In fact, the building (located on the eastern edge of the baths, within in the large portico that surrounded the complex) was used for convivial and cultural activities, as indeed in other sections of the portico. We need to look no further than the two libraries on the north side, one in Greek, the other in Latin.
Obviously, the theater will not harm the ruins: it will be a lightweight structure set up in a green space in front of the “Temple of Jupiter.” But it will add to the visitor experience of the thermal complex, inaugurated in 216 AD by the son of Septimius Severus, a riot of marble, columns, statues, mosaics in the floors and at the bottom of the natatio, the large pool, according to the “Severian Baroque” scenario. Because visitors can see the baths as they once were, during daytime tours, by wearing the high-tech 3D viewers available at the ticket offices.
But back to the performances. Already, from May 30 to June 10, there have been pop and jazz concerts, including Zucchero, Fiorella Mannoia, Danilo Rea. Four caliente dates–June 5, 7, 8 and 15–with the Venditti-De Gregori duo: two hours of cult hits that will silence any talk of the supposed boundaries between the two great Italian singer-songwriters. Negramaro will take the stage on June 13, 14 and 16, and it will surely be standing ovations for Sangiorgi & C. Andrea Bocelli on June 10. On July 24 the histrionic and ageless Massimo Ranieri will be belting out his favorites.
After this preview that allows many artists to leverage the attraction of Caracalla for the Rome leg of their respective tours, we come to the actual festival billboard. Opening June 23 with the world premiere screening of Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator, restored by the Cinetea Nazionale di Bologna, with music performed by the Opera House orchestra. The conductor is Timothy Brock, music director of the "Association Chaplin," who restored the original musical score composed by Chaplin and Meredith Willson. Two theatrical performances, also staged in the Portico Theater: Gli occhiali di Šostakovič (Shostakovich’s Spectacles) produced and directed by Valerio Cappelli, on July 5 and 6, starring Moni Ovadia; instead, on July 18 and 19, we shift to Latin culture with Valerio Magrelli's reading and commentary of Le metamorfosi di Ovidio (The Metamorphoses of Ovid), with a fairy-tale ambiance well suited to the summer evening.
In the year of "VIVA Verdi" (the project advocated by the Ministry of Culture), the opera section cannot fail to include the great composer. La Traviata will be on stage from July 21 to August 9, directed by Lorenzo Mariani and conducted by Paolo Arrivabeni, with Francesca Dotto, Christopher Maltman and Marco Caria. This will be followed by Rigoletto (August 3-10), produced and revised (from dolce vita to malavita) by Michieletto in relation to the summer 2020 version at the Circus Maximus during lockdown. Conducted by Riccardo Frizza and performed by Roberto Frontali, Nina Minasyan, Piero Pretti.
The ballet programme is amazing: Rudolf Nureyev's Cinderella to music by Prokofiev. This is the first time at the Opera House for this fairy tale transported by the Russian choreographer to 1930s Hollywood. And this will be the inspiration for performances by étoiles, prima ballerini, soloists and corps de ballet directed by Eleonora Abbagnato. There are also the traditional evenings with "Roberto Bolle and Friends" (three dates from July 11 to 13) and the "Grand Gala with the Stars" with guests Maia Makhateli and Jacopo Tissi accompanied by étoiles Alessandra Amato, Rebecca Bianchi, Susanna Salvi, Alessio Rezza and prima ballerini Claudio Cocino and Michele Satriano.
On July 23 at 7 pm at the Portico Theater, the Opera School of Dance will stage two performances: a suite from Raymonda by Marius Petipa, revisited by Ofelia Gonzalez and Pablo Moret, and Il carnevale degli animali (The Animal Carnival) by the eclectic Milanese choreographer Davide Bombana, who is also famous for his collaborations with artists and fashion designers, in particular Giulio Paolini and Ermanno Scervino.
For the symphonic offering, the festival reaches heavenly heights: on July 9, Beethoven's Symphony No. 9, conducted by Myung-Whun Chung–his first time at Caracalla–with the Theater Orchestra and Chorus, directed by Ciro Visco, and soloists Olga Bezsmertna, Sara Mingardo, Giovanni Sala and Roberto Tagliavini. And more jazz, including the Stefano Di Battista Quartet on July 31 at 9 pm.
Finally, photography, with a tribute–open until October–to the long and “militant” career, and great civil and political commitment of Letizia Battaglia, who died in April 2022. The exhibition has the added bonus of being installed in the newly restored spaces next to the Western Gymnasium.
Caracalla gets swinging with this festival. Horses, elephants, camels as well as the fireworks of the over-staged Aida are all part of the twentieth-century paraphernalia. Giampaolo Cresci paid for them in 1993, when he was supervisor of the Rome Opera House and it fell to him to obey the orders of Alberto Ronchey, the rigorous minister for Cultural Heritage. During his lively term in office, Cresci revived the barbajata, the frothy coffee with cream and chocolate invented by Domenico Barbaja, a theatrical impresario who thus won over Gioacchino Rossini. As for his version of Aida at the Baths of Caracalla, the volcanic supervisor was content to have Radames enter the stage, to the notes of the Triumphal March, on top of a large shield raised by Egyptian soldiers.
Beyond memories, Caracalla also becomes a festival by offering new spaces restored by the Soprintendenza Speciale (special supervisory authority) of Rome, after the Domus of Vigna Guidi. These rooms are found in the eastern part of the actual spa building: a hall equipped with sospensurae, small square-based pillars used to raise the floor and insert heating systems, which served the tepidarium and a large pool. The baths, built by nine thousand workers a day over five years, required nine million bricks. They were fed by a deviation of the Acqua Marcia, enriched by the catchment of new springs. Further extensions, with porticoes and decorations, came in 235, under rulers Heliogabalus and Severus Alexander. And Constantine also had a hand in it, adding an apse in the Calidarium. During the performances under the stars on balmy summer nights, guests will enjoy contemplating the greatness of Roma Caput Mundi.
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