Debut and success
In 1937 don Piero Colonna, governor of Rome, announced to the press the first lyric season at the Baths of Caracalla, and entrusted the art management to Rome's "Teatro Reale dell'Opera". The great project linked to the political and cultural idea of the government to bring “theatre to crowd” offering to audience a qualified opera season with moderate prices, and launching both the diffusion of italian music and theatre and the archaeological and architectonic sites usually unknown and barely used. The necessity of musical performance in open air was testified by the great success of the summer shows, like the symphonic concerts of “Accademia di Santa Cecilia” in the Massenzio's Basilica, or the experiences of the ancient Arena in Verona and the Castello Sforzesco in Milan. For Rome was chosen an evocative and suggestive site: the Baths of Caracalla, an enormous complex of ruins in the heart of the city, the ancient Thermae Antoninianae started by the emperor Septimius Severus at the beginning of third century but completed and inaugurated in 217 by his successor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Caracalla from whom took its name. The arena was designed and built by Pericle Ansaldo and was placed in a side hall next to the Tepidarium, with a 22 meters proscenium and 8000 seats. "Lucia di Lammermoor" conducted by Oliviero de Fabritiis inaugurated the first summer season at Caracalla the night of 1 August 1936 with an outstanding cast: Beniamino Gigli e Toti Dal Monte.
The experimental season was restrain and just three plays of Lucia and two of Tosca were produced, but it was an amazing success both for turnout and critics, and the summer season was reconfirmed for the next year increasing the number of productions. Structures were totally renovated to fix acoustic and visibility problems and to accommodate up to a bigger audience. The stage was aligned to central axis of the baths and it was situated between the two colossal propylaea of the calidarium, used as suggestive wings, and the stalls area was transferred in the gardens enlarging the capacity to 20.000. Media baptised the new opan-air theatre “Arena of Twenty-Thousand”.
Posters for the second summer season at Caracalla in 1938, with the new structures of the Arena of Twenty-Thousand
Arena of Twenty-Thousand (1938)Teatro dell'Opera di Roma
Aida by Giuseppe Verdi is certainly the most characteristic show of the baths, indissolubly linked to roman summer nights, and since the first spectacular performance in 1938 with Beniamino Gigli and Ebe Stignani has become the opera symbol of the arena. So much that the writer Giorgio Vigolo has coined for the Baths of Caracalla the name “Aideum”. The great classic of Italian melodrama is perfectly suited to majestic stagings with faraonic marches and suggestive scenographies, well harmonized with the roman ruins that work as backstage.
The opera was performed season after season consecutively for many years collecting more than fifty productions until now; and if it's easy criticize the restrain repertoire, it must be underlined the enduring success of the play, always committed to high level singers and conductors. The rule of the main characters were played by italian and international singers like Maria Pedrini, Anita Cerquetti, Antonietta Stella,Virginia Zeani, Eva Marton, Leona Mitchell, Aprile Millo, Micaela Carosi, Fiorenza Cossotto, Giulietta Simionato, Mario Del Monaco, Franco Corelli, Carlo Bergonzi, Nicola Martinucci, Gino Bechi, Giulio Neri, Tito Gobbi, Aldo Protti, Raffaele Ariè, Nicola Ghiuselev.
Sketches by Nicola Benois for the first Aida at Caracalla
Aida nel 1962 diretta da Gianadrea Gavazzeni
Aida: Antonietta Stella
Radames: Carlo Bergonzi
Amneris: Giulietta Simionato
Il Re: Antonio Cassinelli
Amonasro: Aldo Protti
Ramfis: Ivo Vinco
Costumes by Anna Biagiotti for Amneris and Aida, designed in 2010
Aida in 1987 coducted by Julius Rudel and directed by Sylvano Bussotti
Aida: Leona Mitchell
Radames: Ermanno Mauro
Amneris: Grace Bumbry
Ramfis: Nicola Ghiuselev
Costume sketches for Aida by CarambaTeatro dell'Opera di Roma
Sketches designed by Caramba for the costumes of Aida
The Golden Age
World War II stopped the summer opera season, the manifestation was suspended through 1944 and the archeologiac area was transformed in market gardens. The reopening of the summer season during the english menagement of the “Teatro dell'Opera di Roma” was a triumph, even if the majestic “Arena of Twenty-Thousand” was dismantle to create a new halved parquet. From 1945, for about fifty consecutive years, the Baths of Caracalla stood as an extremely important landmark for musical culture as well as perhaps the most fascinating setting dedicated to open-air theaters. International renowed singers performed at Caracalla, like Giacomo Lauri Volpi, Fedora Barbieri, Magda Oliviero, Alfredo Kraus, Monserrat Caballé, Placido Domingo, José Carreras, and also high level directors including Ottavio Ziino, Ferruccio Scaglia, Franco Capuana, Gianandrea Gavazzeni, Giuseppe Patané, Zubin Metha.
Monserrat Caballé in concert in 1992 with the Symphony Orchestra of Sevilla conducted by Vjekoslav Sutej
Traviata - Violetta and Rodolfo's maison (1968) by Ettore RondelliTeatro dell'Opera di Roma
Traviata in 1968 conducted by Pier Luigi Urbini with scene by Ettore Rondelli
Violetta: Virginia Zeani
Alfredo: Luciano Pavarotti
Germont: Mario Sereni
Tosca in 1989 conducted by Jan Latham Koenig and directed by Mauro Bolognini. Set designed by Gianni Quaranta
The Three Tenors (1990)Teatro dell'Opera di Roma
I Tre Tenori in their first exhibition in the eve of the 1990 FIFA World Cup Final with the Orchestras of Teatro dell'Opera di Roma and of Maggio Musicale Fiorentino conducted by Zubin Metha
Famous singer, world-class directors and etoiles of classic ballet have trodden the scene of Caracalla, but the peculiar majesty of open air productions it was often enhanced by large and small animals, unaware actors that surprise and amaze each kind of public. Elephants never appear on stage, whatever every summer people say, but the baths have seen horses, camels and even lions! The great popular show originally directed at the crowd, have attracted also personalities from show business and politic, well-known actor and every kind of VIP, that stick with the crowd -with no boxes to separate- enjoying the charm of the play. Caracalla is a standing appointment in hot summer nights for both presidents and Hollywood stars, romans and tourist, that arrive from every corner of the world filling up the arena to taste as best as possible their “Vacanze Romane”.
Extras watching the lion, unaware actor of Poliuto by Gaetano Donizetti directed by Carlo Piccinato with scene by Cesare Maria Cristini
from left to right: Audrey Hepburn, Beni Montresor, Galina Samsova, André Presser, Fernando Bujones
Audience from the backstageTeatro dell'Opera di Roma
The audience of Caracalla watching the play
Many stars and etoiles of classical ballet have danced under the starry sky of Caracalla, accompanied by the “Ballet Company of Rome's Teatro dell'Opera”. Dance became a standing appointment every year since the first performance in 1939 season with Coppelia conducted by Nino Sanzogno with the “prima ballerina” Attilia Radice and Ugo Dell'Ara, choreographed by Aurel Milloss. The ballet company, separated in postwar period from the ballet school, it was directed by illustrious maestros: Aurell Milloss, Anton Dolin, Erik Bruhn, André Prokovski, Maya Plissetskaya, Vladimir Vassiliev, Elisabetta Terabust, Amodeo Amodio, Carla Fracci and today by the etoile Eleonora Abbagnato. In the repertoire are great traditional ballet, gala evening and contemporary dance, in collaboration with well-know choreographers like Roland Petit, Leonide Massine, Vaslav Nijinski, John Cranko, Antonio Gades, Jose Limon, Rudolf Nureyev, Lindsay Kemp.
Elisabetta Terabust in 1981 with Patrice Bart in the pas de deux of La Sylphide for the night gala "Les Etoiles de la Danse". Coreography restaged by Peter Schaufuss
Sketches from Swan Lake (2004) by Aldo ButiTeatro dell'Opera di Roma
Aldo Buti sketches for Swan Lake
Spartacus in 1987 with Mario Marozzi and Lucia Colognato
Music: Aram Kacaturian
Libretto: Nikolai Volkov
Director: Alberto Ventura
Coreography: Laszlao Séregi
Giselle in 2012 conducted by David Garforth, choreography by Patrice Bart, costumes by Anna Anni
Giselle: Svetlana Zakharova
Albrecht: Fredemann Vogel
The four etoiles Diana Ferrari, Gabriella Tessitore, Margherita Parrilla, Cristina Latini in pas de quatre: music by Cesare Pugni and coreography by Anton Dolin
In 1993 a ministerial decree on the protection of the archaeological sites of the country has imposed the interruption of the plays to restore the Thermae Antoninianae and to secure the structures, mistreated for years by scene sets and by the scant regard for roman ruins. For eight year the theatre did't give up on the traditional summer season, an integral part of theatre and city life, and research alternative and improvised solutions for his open-air productions (like Villa Borghese or the Stadio Olimpico). Performances at Caracalla were resumed just in 2001, with a new concession and a renovated structural arrangement. Stage, arena and services were moved from the traditional position to the area in front of the calidarium, keeping just the propylea as a background. The new arena is the right balance between the necessity of preservation and safeguard archaeological sites, the duty of utilize and propagate knowledge and respect, and the will to keep offer to romans and strangers the suggestive show of the opera at the Terme di Caracalla.
Lucia di Lammermoor in 2008 conducted by Antonello Allemandi, scene by Carlo Savi
Lucia: Annick Massis
Edgardo: Stefano Secco
Enrico: Roberto Frontali
The roman ruins transformed with projections in skyscrapers under construction, for Madama Butterfly in 2015 directed by Alex Ollé from La Fura dels Baus
Norma in 2012 conducted by Gabriele Ferro
Norma: Julianna di Giacomo
Pollione: Fabio Sartori
Adalgisa: Carmela Remigio
Oroveso: Riccardo Zanellato
Tosca (2013)Teatro dell'Opera di Roma
Tosca conducted by Renato Palumbo, direction and scene by Pier Luigi Pizzi
Floria: Martina Serafin
Mario: Alfred Kim
Scarpia: Claudio Sgura
Archivio Storico e Audiovisuale
Exhibit concept and set up by Marco Lo Cascio
- Antonio Frajese "Dal Costanzi all'Opera" Edizioni Capitolium, Roma, 1977;
- Jole Tognelli "Cinquanta anni del Teatro dell'Opera" Bestetti, Roma, 1979;
- Anna Rita Bartolomei "Cinquant'anni di musica e storia a Caracalla" Teatro dell'Opera, Roma, 1991;
- Francesco Reggiani "Il Teatro alle Terme di Caracalla" in "Allestire l'antico" Quodlibet, Macerata, 2013.