by Rino Alessi
Historically speaking, a sphaeristerium was a place where ancient Greeks played ball (‘sfera’); in modern times, the word ‘sferisterio’ in Italian came to identify a generic venue for exercise and sports, usually played indoors, connected to villas, gyms, and thermal baths.
The neoclassic Sferisterio in Macerata, however, is a truly unique open-air stadium. Designed in 1823 by Ireneo Aleandri (1795-1885) – a local architect who was also the author of the monumental viaduct of Ariccia and of Spoleto’s New Theater – it features the typical arched layout of similar structures in antiquity, and was in fact used for matches of what used to be a popular traditional game called “pallone a bracciale” (also known more simply as “bracciale”). Like most of the historical arenas built in Marche during the 18th and 19th century, it was erected by will of a group of private citizens, who wanted a new structure for public entertainment in their city; after its inauguration in 1829, it was initially used for sports events and circus shows. The local “bracciale” team had such a strong following that in the early 1900s mobile bleachers were added to seat an additional ten thousand fans, allowing the Sferisterio to welcome some of the best “bracciale” champions, including Carlo Didimi – immortalized by poet Giacomo Leopardi in his ode, “A un vincitore nel pallone”.
In 1920, the Sferisterio was renovated with the aim of turning it into a proper venue for opera performances. It currently seats approximately 2,800 people, and since 1921 has been the location of the summer opera festival called “Macerata Opera” – renamed “Sferisterio Opera Festival” in 2006, by the artistic director of the time, Pier Luigi Pizzi.
Just like in Verona’s Arena, the first opera to be performed here was Giuseppe Verdi’s “Aida”, under the auspices of Società Cittadina, led by Count Pieralberto Conti. The arena had been transformed into an open-air theater; a parabolic stage had been built with the orchestra right next to it, followed by rows of numbered seating. A large door was created in the middle of the wall to allow for the triumphal entrance of Radames, Verdi’s hero in the war between Egypt and Ethiopia. On opening night, over one thousand extras stood on stage during the triumphal march, in the company of camels, horses, and oxen. Seventeen additional performances of “Aida” had to be scheduled to satisfy over 70,000 spectators – a record that remains unbroken in Macerata. The following year Ponchielli’s “La Gioconda” was performed, followed by a long period of silence until 1927, when the unforgettable Recanati-born tenor Beniamino Gigli held a concert for the Great War’s crippled and disabled.
In 1967, Carlo Perucci – a former opera singer from San Benedetto del Tronto – started his “Circuito lirico delle Marche” initiative, and suggested resuming performances at the Sferisterio. His idea was met with enthusiasm by the time’s local administration, and a new stage, lighting system, and three arches on the background wall were built at once. Since then, every summer Macerata has been at the center of an operatic season that is a symbol of Italian excellence in the niche of “opera under the stars”, alongside Verona’s Arena and Rome’s Terme di Caracalla.
The Sferisterio’s charm and excellent acoustics have become core elements in Macerata’s touristic success. Among the many memorable performances, let us mention the 1984 “La Bohème” directed by Ken Russell, in which Puccini’s Mimì (Cecilia Gasdia) died of overdose instead of consumption; Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” graced by sets designed by Enrico Job; “La Traviata” (Verdi) and “Lucia di Lammermoor” (Donizetti) with sets designed by Josef Svoboda.
All the greatest have sung at the Sferisterio: Pavarotti, Del Monaco, Corelli, Bergonzi, Scotto, Domingo, Gencer, Caballé, Horne, Carreras… and there’s more: Lucia Valentini Terrani (in the role of Carmen), Fiorenza Cossotto, Ruggero Raimondi, Piero Cappuccilli, Mariella Devia, Katia Ricciarelli (who also became the Sferisterio’s artistic director), Renato Bruson, Raina Kabaivanska…
As we mentioned, in 2006 the Sferisterio’s summer program became a proper festival, with artistic director Pier Luigi Pizzi reinstating the parabolic stage and original cotto tile wall, used during “bracciale” matches. That year, for the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth, the “Sferisterio Opera Festival” opened with “Die Zauberflöte” (“The magic flute”), in an extremely original staging. In January 2012, director Francesco Micheli was appointed artistic director and the event took on the name of “Macerata Opera Festival”; in keeping with the event’s thematic structure, the 2012 edition was dedicated to Josef Svoboda on the 10th anniversary of his death, with a new performance of his legendary “Traviata of the Mirrors” – twenty years after it was first staged. The 2013 edition celebrated Verdi’s centennial with “Nabucco” and “Il trovatore”. For 2014, the “Opera is female” theme puts the spotlight on new stagings of “Aida” (with Fiorenza Cedolins) “Tosca”, and “La Traviata”. With one interesting detail: the three masterpieces will be directed by women – Julia Jones, Eun Sun Kim, and Speranza Scappucci.