Bologna’s Teatro Comunale: two and a half centuries of beauty
by Rino Alessi
Bologna’s Teatro Comunale – which celebrates its bicentenary this year – was built by Antonio Galli Bibbiena in the exact location of the Bentivoglios’ Domus Aurea, which had been destroyed in 1507.
After the 1651 Teatro Malvezzi burnt down in 1745, the city promoted the building of this new theater, which was initially called Teatro Pubblico (“public theater”). It was the first example of opera house built with public funding and rented out by the municipality.
Designed by Bibbiena himself, it was constructed between 1756 and 1763, when it inaugurated on May 14 with “Il trionfo di Clelia” (The triumph of Clelia), with music by Gluck – composed to a libretto by Metastasio – written for the occasion and performed again this year to celebrate the anniversary of that first performance. The Comunale was the first theater in Italy to represent an opera by Wagner – “Lohengrin”, in 1871 – and the first theater in Europe – outside of Bayreuth, Germany – where a performance of “Parsifal” was held, in 1914. It was because of these two “premières” that Bologna started to be considered a Wagnerian city – to the point that the German composer was bestowed honorary citizenship.
This only exacerbates the long-time rivalry between the Comunale and Milan’s La Scala, which favored Verdi. According to a popular anecdote, in 1871, during the third performance of the “Lohengrin”, Verdi was sitting in a box seat of the Comunale, holding his opponent’s score in his hands, when an agent from Bologna’s music publishing company Casa Ricordi, Luigi Monti, recognized him and pointed at him after the second act. Yelling “Viva Verdi!”, he prompted an ovation from the audience to which the Maestro – out of pride – did not reply.
Another historic anecdote took place at the Comunale in 1931, when the Fascist regime was at its height in Italy. Toscanini was conducting a concert in memory of composer Giuseppe Martucci, when he refused to perform “Giovinezza” and the “Marcia Reale” in the presence of Galeazzo Ciano and Leandro Arpinati. The maestro was assaulted and slapped in the face by a militant fascist – an experience that led to his decision to leave Italy.
Today, Bologna’s Comunale offers a varied and exciting program. For the 2013-2014 season, which celebrates the 200-year anniversary of both Verdi’s and Wagner’s births, it announced Verdi’s “Macbeth” and “Nabucco” as well as Wagner’s “Der fliegende Holländer” and “Parsifal” (a production hailing from Brussels, next January). This year will end with Britten’s “The Turn of the Screw”, while 2014 will bring Puccini, Tchaikovsky (“Evgenij Onegin”), Mozart (“Così fan tutte”), Shostakovich (with the wonderful “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District”), Rossini (“Guillaume Tell”, in a production from Pesaro) and two new operas: “Cassandra” by the Swiss composer Michael Jarrell, based on a text by Christa Wolf, and “Qui non c’è perché” (There is no reason here), commissioned by the Comunale itself to the Italian composer Molino.