Saturday, February 12, 2005

A night in Verona: June 26 1998

The maestro raised his baton and the gods applauded again. Very loudly this time. So he lowered it and waited until they were finished. And then the audience applauded, perhaps trying to frighten the gods away ...

The omens had been poor after we'd parked our car earlier at the Arsenale in Verona. The sky showed the unmistakable oppressive anger of a potential thunderstorm and, indeed, we could hear nature grumbling in the distance. Then the heavens began to weep, not in the relatively gentle way we're used to at home in Ireland but with great gobs of water splatting the hot dry pavement. We ran across the Castelvecchio bridge, sheltering briefly in its ancient arch.

"We'd better keep going. It might get worse."

"Maybe we can get an umbrella."

Shops in Verona were still open, but finding an umbrella while running for a night at the open-air opera might be difficult.

"Let's try here."

We'd seen the shop before, brightly coloured with the kind of haberdashery you buy for short-term use. Neither of us knew the Italian for umbrella but the girl on the cash desk took one look and thumbed us towards the back. Another customer was coming out from there with a brolly, its security tag dangling. We nodded at each other, recognising fellows in need. A short time was spent on choice, then money on the result, and eventually we were back in the street and heading for the Arena along with thousands of others. To find, for me as a motoring journalist, an amazing sight.

"Gee ... every one of those is a Ferrari!"

Scores of them. Ranks of red parked nose to tail on a barricaded side of the piazza, shining in grossly expensive splendour and attended by red-capped valets who shifted whatever dust might have gathered as they'd arrived.

Now they were also spotting off the water from the rain, which had — of course — eased since we had invested in our brolly. As we watched, another drove up, piloted by a tuxedoed man and with the requisite bejewelled blonde in the passenger seat. He parked with a flourish, blipping his throttle loudly several times just in case nobody was looking.

We had seen taped markings on the piazza a couple of days before, on our way to book tickets for The Masked Ball. Now it figured. We weren't very far from Modena, the home of the prancing horse motif that marked the ultimate in macho status symbols. "Ferrari is a sponsor. And these are all owners invited for the occasion." From all over too, for I could see registrations from Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Monte Carlo ... and, of course, Italy.

We ate, surprisingly reasonably and quite well, at one of the cafes whose sidewalk tables lined one side of the piazza. We watched style parade and occasionally scatter for shelter under cafe awnings as rain flurried. Then it was time to queue with the rest who had paid £16 a head for unnumbered seats on the stone of the old Roman amphitheatre. Those in the know, or who had read their guidebooks, carried their own cushions. Viv had brought her own cushion from Ireland and I had a rug rolled up to sit on. We'd taken the precaution of putting each in plastic bags.

The thunder continued to rumble and the rain got heavier and the entrepreneurs on their way to owning one of the red cars beside us offered little packs of plastic raincoats for £2. Viv invested in two as I made acquaintance with an English family in the queue,

"From Kildare, are you? D'you know Paul Cullen in Monasterevin?"

The cheerful man had introduced himself as Jeff Rook. He looked like a slimmed down Danny de Vito but his good manners and accent were typical midlands England. He sold used textile machinery and one of his customers happened to be an acquaintance of mine who had become the largest exporter of Irish woollen garments to the US.

So we talked about Paul and I learned a few things about him that I didn't know, such as his skill in making fishing flies. "He has a little cottage on a lake, with no electricity, and he goes off there on his own and makes the flies by the light of an oil lamp."

Jeff was much less impressed by the Ferraris beside us.

"My real car would leave most of 'em behind."

His 'real' car is a Morgan Plus Eight, for which there is a seven year wait, making it much more exclusive than any of the beasts in the piazza. And it would leave them all behind. Trust me. I know that Rover V8 engine. "Just put the boot down and hang on to the steering wheel," he grinned.

The rain was heavier now and we broke out the macs Viv had bought. She made Jeff's son a hat out of the little bag that one of the garments had come in and jokingly asked for a thousand lire. Maybe she has her eye on a Ferrari too? Then there was unexpected faster movement of the line. The organisers had opened a second entrance so that we could shelter in the relative comfort of the old ruin. That was where the Ferrari people also gave us commoners little gifts — a tiny spray of perfume and a small red candle.

Finally, with the rain eased again, we were let through to the theatre itself. We chose a space on the topmost tier where some crush barriers provided a backrest and we had a face-on view of the massive stage. A few rows below we spotted Jeff and his family.

There was a lot happening, much to keep our attention. The rich hadn't yet got to their tarpaulin-covered plush seats on the floor of the amphitheatre. Between them and us were somewhat cheaper numbered metal seats, not well occupied. But we peasantry were filling up the stone areas well, showing decent support for the opening night of Verona's annual highlight festival. Despite, in our case, no knowledge of opera or Italian.

"We won't understand it.".

"It's really just mime with songs."

That problem was partly solved by the offer for sale of a libretto by yet another would-be Ferrari owner. There were plenty of his like about, renting cushions and selling wine, soft drinks and panino sweet bread.

"In English?"

"English, Italian, French and German ..."

He was going to make it, all right. He could do business with anybody, a true European. We read the synopsis of the first act as they began peeling the tarpaulins from the plush seats. The glitterati were coming. Literally — one woman's plum-coloured number had sequins which reflected the amphitheatre's lights millionfold. Or maybe it was the odd flash of lightning that shimmered her down the central aisle. Whatever, she was very noticeable. Which, we supposed, was what it was all about.

Certainly nobody was going to notice us up in the gods. Unless they focused beyond the President's Box which we were directly behind It was probably where the chief Roman of the day used to give his thumb up or down on the future or otherwise of defeated but still breathing gladiators. Our positioning actually gave us close to the best seats in the house. And we got a close-up of the top dogs for this night. Some seriously stylish dressers got cheek-kissed by a white dinner jacket with epaulets who looked presidential.

"Princesses, do you suppose?"

"At least."

Indeed. Reading the papers the next morning we found that one of them certainly was, a Jordanian princess closely connected to King Hussein. And tonight we were closer to her than was Miss Million Sequins.

Announcements in several languages, of which English was always last, informed us that the opera was delayed due to the weather conditions. But there was plenty to entertain dedicated people watchers. Such as the beautifully-dressed pair who sat in front of us, drying the stone with tiny tissues before sitting down. We indicated to them that they could rent cushions, but they smiled politely and shook their heads. For them, it seemed, this was all part of how it should be. Both were as immaculately dressed as if comfortably indoors at La Scala, and they hadn't even brought a brolly or bought a £2 mac. And clearly, come what may, they weren't going to.

Finally there was the boom of a gong. An actor had joined the workers energetically sweeping water off the stage. The noise he made signalled the remaining glitterati to take their seats. He bowed to the resultant applause and walked back off stage.
Then it was the turn of the orchestra. Its blacktailed members walked out to their pit carrying their instruments and red folders of music. The drums were uncovered. Those with instruments which needed tuning did their thing with commendable speed, no doubt encouraged in their efforts by the increasingly ill-tempered mutterings from the heavens.

The amphitheatre went totally dark. A single spotlight lanced and pinioned the entering maestro in mid-stride.

We all applauded. Above us, so did the gods, though gently enough. The lights came up.

The maestro raised his baton ...

Two and a half hours later the organisers threw in a quite sodden towel. In all we had watched about thirty-five minutes of performance and listened to a great number of announcements. We had seen several false restarts as the musicians and actors tried to pick up where they had last left off the dots, only to see them scurry off again as Thor and company provided their own quite dazzling alternative performances.

Jeff and family had left some time earlier. They'd been here before and knew the score, literally. Quite a few of the riches stuck it out, though not actually in the rain — their seats were covered for them as they waited the gaps out in some presumably more comfortable and champagne-provendered quarters beneath us.

Miss Million Sequins was able to do several appearances before more than twelve thousand of the rest of us.

Several times the bull fiddle player led the charge of musicians out of their pit as instruments came under danger of being rain-damaged.

The guy with the gong made more appearances than any in the large cast. He got at least as much applause.

One of the lads selling 'birra, vino e Coca Cola' was singing his wares as an aria, obviously believing we should be getting something classical for our money. In the course of the night he performed far harder than the cast of The Masked Ball that never took place.

And then we all went home.

Except the Ferrari owners, I expect. There was no way any one among them could have found their own vehicles amongst so many of the same type and colour.

I was glad we were driving a rented blue Corsa ...

©1998/2005 brian byrne.

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