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Atop Ancient Ruins, A Rock Opera About Emperor Nero Leaves Some Romans Unimpressed

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The rock opera offers a fresh take on the story of Nero, one of history's most nefarious emperors. "His target was to give to the Romans, to the poor people, bread, games, entertainment," says artistic director Ernesto Migliacci. "He tried to make a real cultural revolution."

Nearly 2,000 years after he held sway over ancient Rome, a notorious emperor is again causing outrage. The reason: Italian authorities approved construction of a massive stage amid the ruins over the Roman Forum for a rock opera about Nero, who ruled from 54 to 68 A.D.

Archaeologists and art historians are up in arms, denouncing what they see as the commercialization of the country's heritage.

On opening night June 6, invitation-only spectators made the steep, winding trek from the Forum up the Palatine Hill. Ladies in evening dress walked on their toes to avoid getting their stiletto heels stuck in the old Roman paving stones.

At the top, the view was impressive. Under a star-lit sky, the Colosseum and Arch of Constantine loomed just a few dozen yards away.

What was incongruous was the huge metallic stage and 3,000-seat arena soaring over the archaeological remains of the Domus Aurea — the massive Golden House built by Nero in 64 A.D.

The audience applauded as the first character appeared onstage — a wizened crone with Medusa-like hair. Notorious in ancient Rome for her poisonous concoctions, Locusta illustrates the revisionist theme of the musical.

"What have you been reading all these years?" she asks the audience. "History books are always full of falsehood, they're written by the victors. I'm the only one who knows the truth, because I was there."

The plot line is similar to House of Cards: Thanks to murders and intrigues by his ambitious mother Agrippina, Nero seizes the emperor's throne.

Actor Giorgio Adamo, wearing a short white tunic and high-heel boots, belts out, "I'm superstar, I'm number one," while videos OF WHAT are projected on big screens, acrobats dangle from ropes and singers and dancers try to bring ancient Rome back to life. Adamo says his Nero is "absolutely fresh, modern pop rock."

The show boasts a production team of Oscar- and Grammy-winning composers and set and costume designers. But a musical titled Divine Nero, a Rock Opera begs the question: Why choose one of history's most nefarious emperors as its subject?

Artistic director Ernesto Migliacci is convinced Nero's notorious image as the man who fiddled while Rome burned during the city's great fire was something invented by ancient Roman historians Tacitus and Suetonious.

Modern historians, Migliacci says, have discovered a very different man, one with revolutionary ideas.

"His target was to give to the Romans, to the poor people, bread, games, entertainment," he says. "He tried to make a real cultural revolution."

But at opening night intermission, many spectators appeared unconvinced and walked out.

Audience member Luca Ragazzi could not hide his disappointment.

"I thought maybe it's going be entertaining, of course, but also delivering information, history and maybe more refined," he said. But "it is not refined at all, I promise you, it's just a series of killings, one after another."

Not present at the performance was University of Naples art historian Tomaso Montanari — who strongly opposes turning heritage sites into money-making entertainment venues.

"Visitors are not consumers. Our archaeological heritage should be free from marketing," says Montanari. "It should be a place for learning — not for vulgar musicals like this one."

The producers are counting on large ticket sales among summer tourists. But during the first week, there were only a few hundred spectators each night.

Performances will continue through August. Then the stage will be dismantled.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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