Monday 23 April 2018

Classical: The opera houses that have risen from the ashes

Third time unlucky: La Fenice in Venice ablaze in 1996
Third time unlucky: La Fenice in Venice ablaze in 1996

George Hamilton

La Fenice - the opera house in Venice - got its name a long time ago. Fenice is Italian for phoenix, the mythological bird that dies in flames, then comes to life again, emerging from the ashes. So it was with the opera house. It was conceived to replace another venue, the Teatro San Benedetto, which had burned down and been rebuilt only to become the subject of a legal dispute.

La Fenice opened in 1792, 18 years after the original blaze, on the site of another building which had been destroyed by fire. It was reduced to ashes again, not once, but twice.

In the winter of 1836, it went up in flames and was badly damaged. The Venice Opera House lived up to its name, though, and was open for business again within 10 months.

Sumptuous, spectacular, stunning, it was deemed the most beautiful opera house in the world. It boasted perfect acoustics, and attracted the very best to its stage.

Five of Verdi's operas premièred at La Fenice, among them Rigoletto, La Traviata, and Simon Boccanegra. Bellini's take on the Romeo and Juliet tale - I Capuleti e I Montecchi - was first performed there, as was Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor.

As an aside, that operatic titan Richard Wagner was particularly fond of Venice, and chose the city on the lagoon as his destination for some r&r after he'd overseen the initial run of his opera Parsifal in Bayreuth in the summer of 1882. He took an apartment overlooking the Grand Canal.

On Christmas Eve that year, his wife Cosima's 45th birthday, his present was a concert in La Fenice, featuring his only symphony, written five years before she was born, and rarely performed.

Cosima's father, the great pianist and composer Franz Liszt, played as well, something he hadn't done in public for many years.

Less than eight weeks later, Wagner was dead, the victim of a major heart attack. His passing inspired several works of fiction, notably Death in Venice by the German author Thomas Mann.

Luchino Visconti turned it into an award-winning movie starring Dirk Bogarde, with a soundtrack which featured the magnificent Adagietto from Gustav Mahler's Fifth Symphony.

La Fenice remained a top operatic destination until it burned down for a third time in 1996. Two electricians, who'd been engaged in repair work at the time, were found guilty of setting fire to the place and were sent to prison.

It took a while, but, restored to its former glory, La Fenice eventually reopened in 2003, appropriately enough with Verdi's La Traviata, which had premièred there 150 years before.

The two electricians weren't the only ones to find themselves in jail after a theatre fire. A former manager of the Teatro Petruzzelli, the opera house in Bari in southern Italy, was one of several to do time after an arson attack there in 1991.

Musical theatres have been prone to catastrophe over the years. Covent Garden burned down twice, as did the Liceu on the Ramblas in Barcelona. The venue that would become the Bolshoi suffered a similar fate on three occasions, once as a result of the French invasion of Moscow in 1812. The Paris Opera was destroyed by fire in 1873. La Scala, Milan, and the San Carlo in Naples fell victim in their time, as did the Cork Opera House in 1955.

Thankfully, in every case, like La Fenice, they rose from the ashes to resume their respective, and respected, places at the heart of the musical life of the cities they serve.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday.

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