Verona's ancient Roman arena was once a pagan site where lions devoured enslaved men--to great applause.
On Thursday night, a crowd of about 12,000 applauded for a musical spectacle that pitted Jewish slaves against Babylonian warriors six centuries earlier.
Giuseppe Verdi's opera "Nabucco" is now a symbol of modern Italy, especially for its celebrated chorus of Jews yearning for freedom--"Va, pensiero."
At the Arena of Verona on Thursday, thousands of candles flickered in spectators' hands when the performance started after sundown and lasted into the early morning.
With a warm breeze blowing across this northern Italian city, the lyrics of "Va, pensiero" were apt: "Go, thoughts, on golden wings ... go, and rest on the olives, the hills, where the gentle breezes of our native land smell sweet and soft."
This aria for chorus became the unofficial anthem of a feuding 19th century Italy, sung by Italian patriots who also chanted "Viva VERDI"--an acronym for Vittorio Emanuele Re D'Italia, the new king who led a unified Italy.
Verdi wrote "Nabucco," his third opera, in the heartbroken months after his wife and two children died; it premiered in 1842.
Among the arena's cast of soloists were the Romanian bass-baritone Alexandru Agache as the Babylonian king, Nabucco, and the Italian soprano Francesca Patane as his evil but tormented daughter, Abigaille, who vies with her sister for the love of a Jewish hero.
Leading the orchestra was Israeli conductor Daniel Oren, whose arms stretched moments of emotional intensity into long arches of Verdian sound that held the audience rapt.
The "Va, pensiero" chorus drew a roar of applause that prompted Oren to repeat it--an encore that has become a near-tradition. The contrast between the full-voiced "o mia patria si bella" ("oh my country so beautiful") and the muted "e perduta" ("she is lost") reflect the human dilemma that defines Verdi.
The second time, the singers softened their voices to a sublime pianissimo that floated into the starry sky above the arena.