Teatro La Fenice – The Phoenix, is one of Venice’s most famous and renowned landmarks in the history of Italian theatre and in opera as a whole. La Fenice, especially in the 19th century , held performances of many famous operatic premieres; most notably those of the four major bel canto era composers – Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, and Verdi.
Despite losing three theatres to fire, its name reflects the ability of an opera company to “rise from the ashes”, like a Phoenix – the mythical bird. The first was in 1774, after the city’s leading house was destroyed and rebuilt, but not opened until 1792. In 1836, a second fire occurred, but remarkably rebuilding was completed within a year. The third devastating fire in 1996, the result of an arson attack, destroyed the house leaving only the exterior walls; but was rebuilt and only fully re-opened in November 2004.
In order to celebrate this event the tradition of the Venice New Year’s Concert started.
Left: Front facade of the theatre.
Towards the end of the 18th C, seven old theatres were active in Venice; two for the production of plays and the others for music.
The grandest was the Teatro San Benedetto, which stood on the site currently occupied by the Rossini cinema and built by the Grimani family in 1755. It was subsequently assigned to the Noble Association of Box-holders. However, following a judicial ruling in 1787, this association was expelled and forced to give up the opera house to the noble Venier family; the owners of the land on which it was built. The association immediately proposed building a larger and more sumptuous opera house than the one it had lost; to be named “La Fenice”
Like, the mythical and immortal bird capable of rising out of its own ashes; it was to symbolise the association’s rebirth after its earlier misfortune.
in 1790, land was purchased between Contrada Santa Maria Zobenigo and Contrada Sant’Angelo and the private houses on it were demolished. The design of the new opera house was put out for competitive tender and from twenty-nine plans submitted, the committee of experts, selected the work of the architect Giannantonio Selva. His proposal was for a neoclassical style building with 170 identical but closed boxes in 5 tiers, in a traditional horseshoe shaped auditorium; which had been the favoured style since it was introduced as early as 1642 in Venice.
Closed boxes are a typical Italian feature. These created a private theatrical space which was important for the noblemen of Venice to display their social status and entertain their relationships.
The opera house would face on one side a campo and on the other a canal with an entrance, which gave direct access backstage and into the theatre. Selva’s design and finished opera house appears to have been of high quality and the one best suited to the limitations of the physical ground space. Construction began in mid-1790 and was completed just under two years later, in April 1792.
Out of the approximately 30 theatres which were built in Venice in the 16th and 18th centuries, were hidden in small streets and small squares. Teatro La Fenice was the first one to have a monumental facade on the significant open space of Campo San Fantin; which certainly elevated its status.
Teatro La Fenice – The Phoenix, immediately made its mark as one of Europe’s leading opera houses, both for artistic quality of its work and the splendour of its building.
Tragically on the 13th December 1836, the opera house was devastated by fire, caused by a recently installed Austrian heating system. The flames entirely destroyed the opera house; only the foyer and the Sale Apollinee were saved.
A decision to proceed with its immediate reconstruction was made by the box-holders association, who appointed the architect Giambattista Meduna and his engineer brother Tommaso to carry out the work; whilst Tranquillo Orsi took on responsibility for the extravagant decoration.
Work began in February 1837 and performances were temporarily staged in the Teatro Apollo (now Goldoni).
Completed in record time in the same year on the 26th December 1837, the new opera house, reborn in the new artistic style of the age, was opened to the public. The interior displayed a late-Empire style luxury of gilt decorations, plushy extravagance and stucco.
Unfortunately, due to the speed of the work, urgent restoration to the framework was required as early as 1854. Under the direction of Giambattista Meduna, the house was redecorated in a style that remained unchanged until 1996.
On 23rd July 1935, the box-holder owners ceded their share in the opera house to the Comune di Venezia, so it went from private to public ownership. During 1937-8, part of building was subject to further major restoration and alterations.
Above: Interior of La Fenice in 1837
Giuseppe Verdi’s association with La Fenice began in 1844, with the premiere performances of Ernani, Attila, Rigoletto, La Traviata, and Simon Boccanegra, taking place there.
During the First World War, La Fenice was closed, later reopening to, attract many of the world’s greatest singers and conductors. In 1930, the Venice Biennale initiated the First International Festival of Contemporary Music, which brought such composers as Stravinsky and Britten and more recently Berio, Nono, and Bussotti, to write for La Fenice.
Fatefully, on 29th January 1996 during a period of closure for restoration works, a second fire; completely destroyed the house and most of the Sale Apollinee.
Arson was immediately suspected. In March 2001, a court in Venice found two electricians, Enrico Carella and his cousin Massimiliano Marchetti, guilty of setting the fire. They appeared to have set the building ablaze, because their company was facing heavy fines over delays in repair work in which they were engaged.
Carella, the company’s owner, was sentenced to seven years in prison, but disappeared after appeal was dismissed. Marchetti surrendered and served a six-year sentence. Ultimately, Carella was arrested in February 2007 at the Mexico-Belize border, was extradited to Italy, and was released on day parole after serving 16 months.
Once again “The Phoenix” rose again, faithfully reconstructed to a plan by the architect Aldo Rossi; finally reopening on the 14th December 2003.
Above: 5-tiered galleries and stage of the theatre
After various delays, reconstruction began in earnest in 2001. In 650 days, a team of around 200 plasterers, artists, woodworkers, and other craftsmen succeeded in recreating the ambiance of the old theatre; reportedly at a cost of some €90 million. The opera house was fitted out with extra rehearsal areas and “state of the art” stage equipment; whilst the seating capacity was increased from 840 to 1000.
The guiding principle was that of recreating the original house, particularly its specific technical solution based mainly on the use of wood; carefully chosen and treated to obtain the best acoustic response.
Reconstruction of the decorations in the house, in a Rococo style, was based mainly on consultation of the considerable photographic archive on the opera house held in the theatre’s historic archives.
In the theatre itself, the orchestra pit has a movable platform. When the pit is not required by the musicians, the platform can be raised to the level of the stalls floor; allowing additional front rows of seats to be added, increasing house capacity to 1126.
Teatro La Fenice reopened on 14th December 2003 with an inaugural concert of Beethoven, Wagner, and Stravinsky. The first staged opera was a production of La Traviata, in November 2004.
The new theatre received mixed critical reviews with some reviewers commenting on the acoustic sound quality being slightly bright and lacking in resonance. Perhaps a few critics were trying to make a name for themselves!
The Façade. Built in 1792 to a plan by the Architect Giannantonio Selva, the facade of the building is the only element to have completely survived the two fires that almost entirely destroyed the opera house in 1836 and 1996. Unlike other theatre’s in the city, whose entrances are in secluded places like alleys and small squares; La Fenice is the only historic Venetian theatre facing onto an open space of Campo San Fantin. It is also the only one to feature a colonnade in neo-classical style in its facade. This bears the theatre’s insignia in the centre portraying the phoenix that rises from the flames, carved in 1837 to design by Giambattista Meduna. The facade features two statues in niches representing the muses of tragedy and dance: Melpomene and Terpsichore. Above them are the masks of Comedy and Tragedy, thought to be by Domenico Fadiga.
The Entrance Hall. Escaping entirely unharmed from the first fire that destroyed the original La Fenice Opera House on the night of December 1836; the entrance by Selva, was enlarged in 1937 as part of the upgrading works directed by the engineer Eugenio Miozzi. On that same occasion some walls that divided the right side of the foyer into several spaces were demolished, to make this side the mirror image in shape and decoration of the left. The opera house entrance is therefore the area in which the largest number of original elements of the building interior to survive; notably part of the decoration and most the columns, the floor and the access stairs to the boxes.
Above Left: – The Foyer of La Fenice Right – Sala Grande (Ballroom)
The Sale Apollinee (Apollo’s Rooms)
Sale Apollinee, consists of five rooms whose current layout dates from 1937. These rooms are now used during the intervals by the audience. La Fenice was built in tribute to the god Apollo. Unlike the main house, which was completely destroyed by the enormous fire of 1996; about a fifth of these rooms survived. The surviving fragments can be easily recognised, as it was the intention of the reconstruction work to highlight the difference between the historic sections and recent additions.
Sala Grande or ballroom/intimate concert hall (image left), is the main room of the five Sale Apollinee; lit by the three windows in the middle of the entrance facade. Used over the years for different purposes, the Sala Grande was an elegant venue for balls, chamber music concerts, conferences or book launches and also for musician’s rehearsals; before La Fenice was provided with special rooms for these. It was also used by the governing board of the association that owned for the Comune di Venezia in 1935. Almost completely destroyed on the night of 29th January 1996, the Sala Grande has been faithfully reconstructed to the original model.
Sala Dante named after the frescoes that once decorated its walls, is used as the main bar.
Teatro La Fenice – The Phoenix in Venice, is one of the most beautiful opera houses in Europe. It is really worth taking a close look at it.
When in Venice you can either attend an opera or concert, or visit the theatre for a tour.
Even if you can’t make it to Venice, you can visit their excellent and comprehensive website browse the history of the theatre and their archives.
You can also watch their live broadcasts on Twitter or Facebook or watch videos of the performances on YouTube. You can also download the app of Teatro La Fenice and listen to the “audiotour” to learn about its history.
Buy tickets from:
Fenice Opera House Ticket Office. Open every day from 10 am to 5 pm
Teatro La Fenice
Campo San Fantin, 1965
San Marco, 30124
Telephone: +39 041 786654
OR: Venezia Unica box offices throughout the city.
OR: Call Centre: +39 041 2424 Every day from 9am until 6pm.
La Fenice is usually open for daily tours from 9:30 to 6.00 pm, although variations may occur in the schedule for artistic or technical reasons (check the website).
Admission tickets are available for individuals and for groups and schools. In addition, the Promenade through the Theatre is a unique service that provides access to the Theatre with an expert guide, who leads the tour guests in discovering the theatre and its spaces.
Audioguides are available in 7 languages: Italian, English, German, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Russian. They are very informative in giving you the history of the building, fires, phases of the restoration, the architects and the techniques they used and operas and important composers.
One can easily spend up to a couple of hours, learning about all aspects of this fascinating theatre and its history.
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