Nestled between sea and mountains, on the east coast of Italy and opposite Croatia, the Macerata Sferisterio opera open-air arena began in very different circumstances.
The main Italian national sport of Pallone Col Briacciale had been in existence in Italy since the 15th century, and the locals wanted somewhere large enough to both play and watch the sport. In addition to Pallone Col Briacciale, there was a need for circuses and bull fights from time to time. So, one hundred citizens worked together to fund the arena. Ireneo Aleandri was commissioned to design and build the outer structure, which involved destroying and rebuilding some of the original walls around the city, and next to Porta Mercato gate.
The locals were then able to indulge in their love of Pallone Col Briacciale, which involves hitting a ball back and forth using a wooden cylinder, which is hedgehog-like in structure. This is worn over the forearm, however, it can result in a broken arm if used wrongly, as the weight of the Bracciale can be between 1-2 kilograms. The ball itself is around 39 centimetres and weighed at the time around 750 grams. The scoring method was similar to tennis in that the score went from 15-30-45-60 etc. Interestingly, the game began by a designated server called the Mandarino who was not a part of the game.
This sport was popular in France, Germany, Austria, the UK, Netherlands, USA, Argentina and Egypt as well as Italy. It even made it into ‘Where Angels Fear to Tread’ (1991).
The original name of the sports venue needed for this sort of game is Sphaeristerium, however, in Italian this translates to Sferisteri. The game can be played in teams of 3 players each, 2 against 2 or solo bouncing the ball off the wall. With the Macerata Sferisterio being 18 metres high and 88 metres long, the arena was the perfect venue. The arena also has 56 columns with double boxes and a stone gallery built in Neoclassical style.
While the love of Pallone Col Briacciale decreased in time, football became a popular use for the arena, and this involved the renovation of levelling the surface in 1919 to accommodate this. Whilst the Macerata Sferisterio had hosted the occasional theatrical event, it was not until 1914 that opera found a permanent home here.
Apparently an Italian whose name has escaped history, had travelled to Verona and discovered the open-air Arena di Verona, which every summer performed well-known operas. On becoming enraptured by a performance of Verdi’s Aida, complete with live elephants on the stage at the time, the Italian returned back to Macerata definite in his belief that Macerata would do the same. Hence the rebirth of the Macerata Opera Festival.
In 1921 Pieralberto Conti was brought in to stage the first ever performance of Verdi’s Aida from the Macerata Sferisterio. It starred the soprano Francisca Solari in the title role. The arena was thoroughly renovated both front and back stage as well as introducing electricity as the sun went down in the evenings.
Sadly the second year of the Macerata Festival was disastrous due to the rain cancelling most of the performances, so the arena didn’t begin again until the late 1960s. By that stage popular 19th and 20th century Italian operas were headlined at the arena. At the time the layout of the arena was altered to 3,500 to 4,500 seats, depending on the performance taking place. Performances by well-known film director Ken Russell’s Madama Butterfly and Franco Zeffirelli’s Carmen were staged.
The arena currently has a stage depth of 14.5 metres and 40 metres wide, along with 10 metre wings on each side. The acoustics are incredible despite the irregular stage dimensions.
In the 2006 season the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth meant The Magic Flute was performed, but moved back to 9pm so the audience had a stunning sunset, as an additional natural backdrop to this fantastic opera.
The Arena Sferisterio opera festival became popular from the late 1980s and now performs three operas each summer, whilst using the shoulder seasons to showcase other musical events.
The seating varies from the stalls on the ground, the loggia boxes that encircle three sides, and the open roof part, where the locals bring their own fold down chairs and enjoy a view looking down on the arena in front of them, or overlooking the city and Le Marche region from behind.
In keeping with the history of the arena, the dents made on the back wall of the stage from Pallone Col Bracciale have been left in place.