The international grandeur of Bari’s Teatro Petruzzelli
by Rino Alessi
The Teatro Petruzzelli is a symbol of both Italian musical excellence and architectural beauty and harmony; currently owned by the Messeni Nemagna family, it is the main theater in Bari, the fourth largest in Italy, and the largest private theater in Europe.
The capital city of Apulia is renowned for its grandeur: the locals love to say, “If Paris was on the sea, it would be like a small Bari”. In truth, in 1854, following in the footsteps of other major Italian cities, Bari had already inaugurated a public theater, the Piccinni, named after one of the most important composers from the region. Its small capacity (approximately 1,000 people) made quite a few people unhappy, to the point that some started to demand another theater “of all and for all”. In this reactive situation, the great success of Pietro Mascagni’s “Cavalleria rusticana” in 1890 was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Mascagni – born in Livorno, but deeply tied to Apulia – had composed his work while living in Cerignola, so Bari and Apulia awaited his masterpiece with great anticipation.
Therefore, in 1877 the City Council decided to give 12,000 lire and an allotment of free land to the company willing to build a theater under the terms and conditions it had set. Brothers Onofrio and Antonio Petruzzelli – two traders and ship builders originally from Trieste – presented a project by their brother-in-law, Bari-born engineer Angelo Cicciomessere (who later changed his name to Messeni by Royal Decree). Their proposal was approved in 1895, but construction did not begin until May 23, 1898; the Teatro Petruzzelli opened four years later, on February 14, 1903, with “Les Huguenots” by Giacomo Meyerbeer (recently performed in Martina Franca, for the Festival pugliese della Valle d’Itria). Compared to other structures in Italy, the Petruzzelli had an outstanding capacity (originally 2,192 seats, reduced to 1,482 over time due to safety standards) and offered a wide variety of shows.
Its stage welcomed the great masterpieces of opera (especially Verdi and Puccini) as well as new works in step with international artistic trends, such as Marchetti’s ‘grand opéra’ “Ruy Blas”, Auber’s opéra-comique “Fra Diavolo”, Gomes’s opera ballo “Il Guarany”, and the famous “Ballo Excelsior” by Marenco.
Unforgettable artists like Beniamino Gigli, Licia Albanese, Tito Schipa, Mario Del Monaco, Alfredo Kraus, Luciano Pavarotti, Renato Bruson, Renata Tebaldi, Piero Cappuccilli, Raina Kabaivanska, and Ruggero Raimondi all performed here. Not to mention conductors Herbert von Karajan and Riccardo Muti, dancers Rudolf Nureyev and Carla Fracci.
When Bari became a key center for the Allied forces in World War II, the British-American army took over the Petruzzelli and turned it into a venue for troops’ entertainment – as portrayed in the film “Stardust” (“Polvere di stelle”), featuring Alberto Sordi and Monica Vitti. The building was fitted for shows of various genres, and indeed the program highlighted revues starring Wanda Osiris and Totò, Nino Taranto, Macario, and even the legendary Joséphine Baker, from Paris; the halls resounded with songs by Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles, Liza Minnelli, Juliette Greco – and with the voices of Giorgio Gaber, Lucio Battisti, and Claudio Baglioni. There were plays by Eduardo, as well as Brecht’s “The Threepenny Opera” performed by Milva and Modugno, with music by Weill, directed by Strehler. Some great pop music concerts were held at the Petruzzelli: Paolo Paolo Conte and Ornella Vanoni sang here, and this was the stage of the yearly “Caravella dei successi” song festival. In the 1980s, it provided the set for a popular TV music show, “Azzurro”, as well as a location for Franco Zeffirelli’s movies.
In 1954, the Petruzzelli was added to the list of monuments of historical and artistic importance in Italy (“Monumenti d’interesse storico e artistico”), protected by law. In 1967 it was also named “Teatro di tradizione” (“Traditional Theater”). In the 1980s, it brought to Bari events of international importance: Ronconi presented here Piccinni’s “Iphigénie en Tauride” – which had never been performed since its debut in Paris in 1779 – before taking it on tour, reaching the Théâtre du Châtelet. Pizzi staged Bellini’s “I Puritani” in the never-performed version meant for Maria Malibran, adapted for Katia Ricciarelli. Since 1981, the greatest ballet companies of the world danced at the Petruzzelli.
Barely had the lights gone out on Bellini’s “Norma” when one night, on October 27, 1991, a fire destroyed the theater. To confront the terrible void left by the incident, in 2003 the Fondazione Lirico-Sinfonica Petruzzelli e Teatri di Bari was founded; after the theater was rebuilt in 2008, the foundation has been entrusted with the structure’s management, maintenance, and insurance.
The Teatro Petruzzelli officially re-opened on October 4, 2009, almost eighteen years after the fire, with a performance of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. The following December 6, “Turandot” by Giacomo Puccini (with director Roberto De Simone, and conductor Renato Palumbo) opened the Petruzzelli’s first opera season. The theater was rebuilt exactly as it was originally, with the exception of new and innovative safety systems and technologies. The Foundation’s artistic and cultural activity can now find full expression on this stage.
The current season opened with “Elektra” – by Richard Strauss, on the one-hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary of his birth –, directed by Gianni Amelio; it went on with “La Traviata” (from Naples’s Teatro San Carlo, directed by Özpetek) and “Pagliacci” by Leoncavallo (staging by Bellocchio). After the summer break, it will resume with the charming “Cappello di paglia di Firenze” by local composer Nino Rota, Puccini’s “The Triptych” (from Vienna, directed by Michieletto), and Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” with the rising star Maria Agresta. Finally, it will end with Mozart’s “Die Zauberflöte” (“The Magic Flute”) in the Aix-en-Provence staging. A program certainly set to establish the grandeur and international standing of Bari’s beautiful theater.