Teatro San Carlo: a temple of opera and dance at the heart of Naples
After visiting Teatro San Carlo, Stendhal wrote in his 1817 travel journal, “Rome, Naples and Florence”, “There is nothing in all of Europe comparable to this theatre, that gives the slightest idea of what it is like. It dazzles the eyes, enraptures the soul”.
The theater is, indeed, an overwhelming triumph of beauty. Built in 1737 by King Charles III of Spain, it is the oldest continuously active opera venue in Europe and in the world. Although it is named after Saint Charles – and opened on 4 November, when the saint is celebrated – it was designed by Spanish military architect Giovanni Antonio Medrano and the director of the San Bartolomeo, Angelo Carasale to represent the king’s power and Naples’s status of great European capital.
In the first few years after opening, Teatro San Carlo welcomed important artists from the Neapolitan school such as Domenico Cimarosa, one of the central figures in his century’s opera buffa. Later, in 1800, the structure gained éclat thanks to famous impresario Domenico Barbaja, who opened the door to seasons directed by Donizzetti and Rossini – who at the San Carlo wrote his first opera when he was just 23 years old.
In 1816, a fire destroyed part of the building and made extensive renovation necessary. Two of the theater’s top features were born then: the clock under the arch of the proscenium, where Time points out hours passing by while the Mermaid of Arts tries to hold them back; and the gorgeous 500-square-meter canvas below the ceiling – representing Apollo as he introduces Minerva to the greatest poets in the world – by Giovanni, Antonio and Giuseppe Cammarano. The building’s façade as we know it today was updated by Antonio Niccolini, an architect and set designer who led Neoclassicism in Naples: he was responsible for the neoclassic look and Hellenizing decorations we admire here to this day.
There are many interesting details about the theater’s interiors. For example, their hues: they used to be in burnished silver with gold details, while the stage curtain and velarium were light blue. These were the colors of the House of Bourbon, which Ferdinand II changed into bright red and gold in 1844, to make the space similar to other opera houses in Europe.
Over the years, the San Carlo attracted to Naples the best opera singers and orchestra directors in the world, like Toscanini, Stravinsky, Karajan, Muti, Abbado and many more. The theater also holds the record for the oldest dance school in Italy, which was founded here in 1812 and brought great dancers to perform on this stage: Ekaterina Maximova, Vladimir Vassiliev, Rudolf Nureyev, Carla Fracci, Alessandra Ferri, Gheorghe Iancu, Vladimir Derevianko and Roberto Bolle; not to mention choreographers Roland Petit, Maurice Béjart and Pina Bausch, to mention but a few.
During the renovations carried in 1816, when the ceiling canvas was installed, it created an acoustic box above the audience. Also thanks to the materials used for the interiors, there is no reverberation and sound is absorbed with no variation between different seats. Thus, Teatro San Carlo has a wonderful history that is its unique heritage today, but is made even more special by its virtually perfect acoustics.