I know that Rome wasn’t built in a day, but sometimes I am amazed at what goes up and then comes down in a matter of hours. For example, at Pentecost this year, Pope Francis met with thousands of people for prayer in the nearby Circo Massimo, the legendary place of the Roman chariot races and site of Christian martyrdom in the early Church.
Located in the heart of Rome, Circo Massimo remains a huge oval-shaped open space, the size of several football fields. A few days before Pentecost, in preparation for the pope’s visit, an elaborate covered stage was built at the north end of Circo Massimo, thousands of chairs were set in place and the Monday after Pentecost Sunday it was all dismantled and gone in a matter of hours. Truly amazing, but the way such things come and go here.
Earlier this year a very elaborate and quite ugly stage, with seating for 3,000 people, was constructed for a summer theatrical event on the Palatine Hill, built on ruins in the ancient Roman Forum, the city’s principal archeological site, very near the Coliseum. The completed covered stage is quite visible from the Coliseum and other important sites in the vicinity of the “centro storico” (historic center) of Rome. Our Subiaco Cassinese General Curia is located not far away.
The Palatine temporary theater in the Roman Forum is precisely where the Emperor Nero had his elaborate estate after the famous fire of 64 A.D. Christians were accused of having started the fire and this led to the persecution and martyrdom of many Christians under Nero and other Roman emperors.
The newly-built outdoor Forum theater is the site of a summer song-and-dance show called, “Divo Nerone” (Divine Nero), to run nightly the months of June, July and August. Like most things public and cultural, the construction and event in the Forum has its share of defenders and detractors, from many corners of the Roman and Italian populace.
A “New York Times” article of June 9, 2017, by Elisabetta Povoledo, entitled “Nero Rock Opera Is a Burning Issue in Rome,” describes the controversy surrounding the construction and environmental impact of the temporary theater. It has been described as an “offense to the beauty of Rome,” an “eco-monster,” and “crass commercialization.”
The producers of the musical, composed of Oscar and Grammy winners, are quick to point out that all was done legally, with care taken to safeguard the Forum site where the theater is located. The producers apparently paid almost $300,000 to rent the space. That sum and an additional 3 percent of all ticket sales are going toward needed restoration work in the Forum. One can only hope so.
One can also easily question the aesthetic value of the construction that is so visible in the Roman Forum and Coliseum area. The theater seems, as Povoledo says in her Times article, quite “out of place in one of Italy’s renowned archaeological parks,” summing up what some archaeologists and conservationists are saying.
What about the rock musical itself? I haven’t gone to see it nor do I plan to, but it has been described as a “song and dance extravaganza,” and as “a mishmash” of “Disney meets ‘House of Cards’ meets the History Channel.” These descriptions are from the Povoleda New York Times article.
The musical production brings out the negative side of Nero (was there any other?), as described by his contemporary detractors, both orators and poets. The Italian actor and singer, Giorgio Adamo, who portrays Nero in the musical, calls his character “very fresh, modern,” and in the context of the musical, “a pop-rock personality that anyone can understand.”
The performances in the Forum theater are most nights sung in English, but on Saturdays in Italian.
Defenders of the production point out that this event is drawing people to an often overlooked part of the Palatine Hill, making it a place worth seeing by visitors to Rome.
I bring up all of this in part because friends who live right next door to the huge stage and nightly performances of “Divo Nerone,” are Catholic contemplative sisters of the Monastic Fraternity of Jerusalem. They too live on the edge of the Roman Forum, in a previously quiet and secluded place, dedicated to the martyr Saint Sebastian.
Each day the three or four sisters assigned there from their motherhouse in France, chant the Liturgy of the Hours and celebrate Mass in their small but beautiful chapel. When I visited them earlier this year, about a twenty-five minute walk from Sant’Ambrogio where I live, I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw and heard the stage going up, which if the wind blew over would land right on the sisters buildings. It is that close!
I was happy to see that Elisabetta Povoleda, author of the recent New York Times article, also mentions the sisters at “San Sebastiano” and their understandable alarm at the presence and noise level of the outdoor summer event so close to their residence.
Sister Rosalba, the superior at San Sebastiano, who is Italian, is quoted as saying the musical “is impossible not to hear” at their residence and that “the windows (of their house) certainly vibrate,” which could have negative effect on the ancient structure they occupy.
Sister Rosalba also points out that “it is not our style to fight back, but I wish there had been some dialogue,” since there was no warning or information given to the sisters that the musical was to take place. “This is a beautiful space, and we need to conserve it,” Sister Rosalba noted.
Sister Rosalba expressed these concerns while the month-long rehearsals for the production were underway and when the New York Times author was researching for her eventually published article.
When I saw the enormous stage going up during my last visit the sisters, when I celebrated Mass for them one evening this spring, I asked about what might be going on next door. When they described what they understood as going to take place, I truly wondered how they would weather the noise and if they would have to vacate their residence during the summer months.
I hope to get in touch with Sister Rosalba soon to find out how they are faring now that daily performances of the musical are taking place on the Palatine Hill. Normally a quiet enclave in the Eternal City, the area around the Forum is currently “on fire” with high-volume noise during the nightly extravaganza about “Divo Nerone,” the famous tyrant who once ruled Rome and still is exerting an influence here two millennia later.