Rock Opera Staged Dante Ferretti Will
Courtesy Artisti Associati

ROME — Did Roman emperor Nero get a bad rap?

“Divo Nerone,” a rock opera with international ambitions being staged in the real Roman Forum by Oscar-winning production designer Dante Ferretti and other Italo heavyweights, is out to prove Rome’s ancient ruler known for cruel deeds wasn’t such a bad guy after all.

Ferretti (“The Aviator,” “Sweeney Todd,” “Hugo”), along with Francesca Lo Schiavo, who is his wife and working partner, and prominent Italo costume designer Gabriella Pescucci — Oscar winner for “The Age of Innocence” — have all been recruited on this high-profile project, which is penned by Grammy Award-winning Italo lyricist Franco Migliacci (“Volare,” “Django Theme Song”).

Interestingly, production of “Divo Nerone” is being set up in an open-air venue atop the Palatine Hill situated directly above the underground ruins of Nero’s sumptuous residence, the Domus Aurea, which the emperor had built over the famous fire that destroyed much of Rome in A.D. 64.

“The audience will be able to see a live representation of ancient Rome catching fire, with a realistic representation of the real setting of the time,” boasts Italian impresario Cristian Casella. A section of the real Colosseum, seen at a distance amid special effects and smoke, will be part of the outdoor show’s scenery.

Ferretti (whose sketch for the Rome fire set-piece is pictured above) has constructed several rotating prosceniums, one of which is inspired by Nero’s real rotating banquet hall, the Coenatio Rotunda, which was powered by a constant flow of water and is considered the forerunner of today’s rotating restaurants.

The roughly two-hour show will have 28 scene changes and 36 musical numbers. Songs are written by Migliacci with music by revered composer Luis Bacalov, who won an Oscar for the “Il Postino” score, and also by other tunesmiths. The director-choreographer is Gino Landi, a veteran of the Italian musical stage.

Based on a relatively recent scholarly reappraisal, “Divo Nerone” will basically portray Nero as a good soul gone bad.

“Forget Peter Ustinov in ‘Quo Vadis,’” said Jacopo Capanna, who is producing “Divo Nerone” in partnership with Casella. “It’s not the Nero who fiddled while Rome burned.”

Instead, it’s about a man who suffers the political complexities of his times, including the advent of Christianity. “In the final act there is a redemption scene in which Nero ascends in a Christian sense,” Capanna revealed.

“Nero really never wanted to be emperor,” opined Casella. “He wanted to be an artist, an actor and singer.” He also wanted to make his mark as a cultural innovator in Rome, “at a time when the Roman empire was not at war.”

The plan is for “Divo Nerone,” which marks Italy’s most ambitious stage musical to date, to open in June in its Roman Forum venue and play on some days in English and others in Italian. The producers see it as a tourist attraction. After the summer the show will move from the Palatine Hill to the Cinecitta World theme park, south of Rome, also designed by Dante Ferretti.

Internationally Capanna and Casella, who are partners in Rome’s recently relaunched Artisti Associati shingle, see “Divo Nerone” as a highly exportable property with potential for TV, film and licensing for live performances.

Capanna said they will start shopping it internationally at the upcoming Cannes Film Festival through Los Angeles-based Storm Entertainment.

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