Roman history started seven centuries before Jesus Christ was born and lasted four more after his passing away, so more than a millenia of Roman culture spread over Europe, Northern Africa and Middle East definitevely shaping the world and the way we understand it. As any other empire in history, good and evil was done -depending on the beholder’s eye- but if something we can credit to Romans is architecture. More than two thousand years and hundreds of wars and revolts have gone by since two brothers were breast-fed by a she-wolf but many of their buildings still stand witnessing the non movement of the passing of time.
Greek influence in Rome was high and deep from the very begining -at the time they were still a small nation, Greece was in its splendor- and theatres were a Hellenistic imported fashion. However, Romans started to develop their own structure and style, basically imitating Pompey Theatre, the first one to become permament in the empire. More than 300 theatres and amphitheatres can still be found in Europe, from England to Romania, and Mediterranean Sea shores –Mare Nostrum they named this sea, our sea.
Some are bare remains but many others have been awarded World Heritage by UNESCO as they are almost in mint condition and still operating. Roman amphitheatres were devoted to races, gladiator fights and all sorts of violent shows -matching the Roman liking- but theatres were a different kind. Acoustics were extremely important in its construction since they were devoted to higher forms of culture, such as orations, plays and choral representations –some of them equally violent given that if a character was supposed to die in the play, the actor would be subrogated by someone who would actually die. Fortunately our taste for shows have evolved to harmless forms of enjoyment.
Many are the Roman theatres that have been restored to their old magnificence and are able to offer ancient plays and modern concerts and representations of all kind for us to enjoy. Let’s have a look at what this 2012 summer can offer.
Emerita Augusta, awarded World Heritage in 1993, is modern Mérida in Southern Spain and the old capital of Lusitania -Roman Portuguese province. The remains are impressive with standing bridges, temples, obelisks and obviously theatres, making it one of the best preserved Roman cities in the world. This year, Merida Classical Theatre Festival will be holding its 58th edition during July and August 26th offering live concerts and films at the 1st century open theatre. But since you’ve noticed from its name, classical theatre is the king of shows in this festival. Ulysses’ Odissey trying to get back home to his wife Penelope and the great drama of murder, revenge and fear from Euripides’ Electra are some of the plays that will be performed this summer. Patricians were the rich elite of Roman society -allow yourself to be treated as one at the impressive NH Gran Casino Extremadura.
Vienne, the old capital of the Gauls, is a small town placed over Rhône River, in East France. The Roman Army would attempt several times to take over the city, encouraged by city wealthy trade and strategic situation, but they ended up repelled -some of them would turn their desperate eyes North to found Lugdunum, today’s Lyon. Julius Caesar would come to govern the empire and Vienne would en up under his rule in 47 BC, becoming a thriving latin city, where arts and culture flourished unrestrained. Today’s modern ville of Vienne hasn’t forgoten his past and still holds major events of performing arts: Jazz à Vienne would hit the town this summer in its 31th edition, dragging the best jazz figures from around the world to play in the local amazing Roman theatre.
France –The Gaul as it was then- used to be one of the most important provinces in the Empire and the region neighbouring Italy, one of the richest. Three hours driving South from Vienne we reach Arles, a multicultural city -it was cosmopolitan even in ancient times- next to Camargue Natural Reserve and the dying place of Van Gogh, who portrayed the town in some of its most famous paintings. Arles can be proud of having among its urban design carefully preserved Roman remains –not to miss the amphithetre and the water system– but it is the theatre, able to fit more than 9000 viewers with an astounding acoustic, that makes it stick out of the map. The Roman theatre was restored early, at the begining of 19th century, bringing down the civil and religious building that had encroached on it.
Since then, the summer festival of The Chorégies, has been taking place. At first, Greek and Latin classic plays, among French authors of that time, were performed. Very succesfull early on, interest in the festival was decaying and the venture seemed to be at the risk of collapse. But in 1971, taking advantage of the perfect acoustic of the theatre -able to rival La Scala– the festival leaned towards lyrical music. The best lyric and opera singers started performing in Arles, willing to have their voices reverberating through the old marbled theatre, and have kept on since then. This 2012, The Chorégies Festival offers Puccini’s Boheme and Turandot and Mozart’s Requiem among other geniuses’ works, performed by stars such as Michel Plasson and Diana Damrau.
When talking about Roman civilization, could we possibily skip Rome, the eternal city? Absolutely not, but truth is the best Roman inspired festival takes place in the Baths of Caracalla, not an old theatre. The Terme di Caracalla event is part of Teatro Dell’Opera di Roma, brinbing each year since 1937 the best music to the old capital. It was a trait of Roman character to adopt any advantage or improvement they would find in the peoples they conquered and it seems they still do: this summer Madame Butterfly and Attila will be sharing the stage with worldwide trend Dj’s. Rome was and will never stop being the right place to be.
Photo Credit : David Jones
Photo Credit: Teldridge+Keldridge