La Fenice, rising from the ashes
by Rino Alessi
Just like the phoenix – the mythological immortal bird that Herodotus, in his “The Histories”, says could always be reborn from its ashes – Venice’s La Fenice has been destroyed and rebuilt repeatedly over the centuries. Located in Campo San Fantin in the San Marco ‘sestiere’, La Fenice is the major opera house in the city on the lagoon, and one of the symbols of Italian musical excellence in the world.
At the end of the 1700s, Venice counted seven active theaters – two dedicated to drama and five to music. The most prominent was Teatro San Benedetto, in the area where the Rossini cinema is now. Promoted in 1755 by the Grimani family, it was later given to the Nobile Società dei Palchettisti, which following a 1787 court settlement was proscribed and forced to give the theater to the noble Venier family, owners of the plot. The Società immediately set out to build a new, bigger theater, and decided to call it Gran Teatro La Fenice.
Twenty-eight feasibility studies were submitted, and Giannantonio Selva was chosen for the job among nine architects vying for the project. The pre-existing buildings in the area destined to the new structure started to be demolished in April 1790, under the supervision of Antonio Solari, and construction was completed by April 1792. On May 16, day of the Festa della Sensa (or Ascension Day, one of the most famous festivals in Venice), the theater officially opened with a performance of “I giuochi d’Agrigento” by Giovanni Paisiello, with libretto by Pepoli.
The new theater was so important that thousands of people were involved in building it. To suitably welcome Napoleon, the hall’s decor was pale blue and silver, in step with the Empire’s new style. Then, in 1836, a fire broke out. Rebuilding and upkeep became ongoing activities. On January 29, 1996 another devastating arson destroyed the theater, which had been closed for maintenance. The firefighters worked all night, but nothing could be done to save the theater and its extraordinary acoustics. The world wept the loss of one of the most beautiful theaters it had.
From grief arose the will to rebuild, inspired by the “com’era, dov’era” (“as it was, where it was”) motto coined when Saint Mark’s bell tower was rebuilt. On September 7, 1996 a tender notice was published, and among the ten companies who participated, the A.T.I. Holzmann won with a project by Aldo Rossi.
Between December 14 and 21, 2003, the theater’s inaugural week was held. For the first concert, Riccardo Muti conducted the orchestra and the Choir of La Fenice, at the presence of then-President of the Italian Republic Carlo Azeglio Ciampi. Partial to Verdi (who premiered five of his works here), but in a city loved by Wagner (who died here), with its 2012/2014 biennial program La Fenice celebrates the bicentenary of the births of both artists – with “Otello”, staged “en plein air” in the courtyard of Palazzo Ducale, and “Tristan und Isolde” directed by Myung-Whun Chung.
In these weeks La Fenice also celebrates the 150-year anniversary of Giacomo Meyerbeer’s death with the seldom-performed “L’Africaine”, in an engaging staging by Leo Muscato, with the powerful contribution of tenor Gregory Kunde, back after his success in “Otello”.
The program for the next few months, split between La Fenice and Teatro Malibran, includes Rossini (“La scala di seta”, the evergreen “Barbiere” and “L’inganno felice”), Mozart (“La clemenza di Tito” and “Don Giovanni”), three operas by Puccini (“Bohème”, “Butterfly” and a new “Tosca”), Verdi (“La Traviata” and “Il Trovatore”), and Wolf Ferrari (“Il Campiello”). From the period between the two great wars (the so-called “Novecento storico”), “Elegy for young lovers” by Henze, “The Rake’s Progress” by Stravinsky – which had originally opened at La Fenice – and, in cooperation with the Biennale, “La porta della legge” by Sciarrino.