The great opera singer Luciano Pavarotti once described Teatro La Fenice as “a jewel and architecturally the most beautiful theatre in Italy”, and indeed a visit to this iconic building is sure to be one of the highlights of any trip to Venice.
According to Italian composer Girolamo Parabosco, in the sixteenth century theatre-going was so popular with Venetians that they “would climb walls, break open doors, or swim the canals to force their way into the place where some famous comedian was acting”. By 1800 there were eighteen public theatres in the city (at a time when London boasted only six), and La Fenice was the most celebrated of all. Named after the phoenix – the mythical bird which rose in flames from the ashes – it was built to replace an earlier theatre that had been destroyed by fire in 1773. Opening to the public in 1792, it swiftly established a reputation as one of the leading theatres in Europe, hosting many of the major operatic events of the 19th and 20th centuries including premieres of Verdi’s Rigoletto and La Traviata, Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress and Britten’s The Turn of the Screw.
As well as being an important cultural venue, La Fenice also served as one of the city’s most popular social hubs, where Venetians gathered to gamble and gossip. As John Ruskin’s wife Effie commented, “as most people went every night for an hour, it was economical as it saved them lighting their rooms at home… having a box at the Opera was the cheapest way for all to see people and society”. Following the fall of the Venetian Republic in 1797, the theatre also became the centre of political life in the city. Popular forms of nationalist expression included showering the stage with bouquets in the colours of the Italian flag, and shouting ‘Viva Verdi!’, whose name was an acronym for the king of Italy (Vittorio Emmanuele, Re d’Italia).
In 1836 disaster struck when La Fenice was destroyed by fire, though it was quickly rebuilt within a year. 160 years later, on 29th January 1996, the theatre was demolished once again by a blaze that shocked the world; far from being another tragic accident, it was the result of arson, started by two electricians who had been contracted to rewire the building, and were facing heavy fines due to delays to their work. With the surrounding canals drained for dredging and restoration work, firefighters were forced to draw water from the distant Grand Canal; one bystander likened it to “trying to put out the fires of hell with a garden hose”. Standing in the charred rubble the morning after the fire, the city’s mayor Massimo Cacciari pledged that the theatre would be rebuilt “come’era, dov’era” (as it was, where it was”), and in 2003 after a painstaking restoration project that cost over €90 million, La Fenice finally opened its doors, rising triumphantly from the ashes once again.
Today, La Fenice hosts world-class performances throughout the year, including opera, ballet, music and dance – and the 2017 season looks set to be more exciting than ever, with highlights including Puccini’s La Boheme (16th February – 2nd March), Verdi’s La Traviata (19th May – 16th July) and Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo directed by Elsa Rooke and Sir John Eliot Gardiner (16th June). Open to the public during the day, the theatre also offers tours of its magnificent interiors including the sumptuous Royal Box commissioned by Napoleon in 1808 and a display of photographs of the legendary Maria Callas – with audio-guides providing fascinating insights into the building’s rich and remarkable history. Situated in the heart of Venice on Campo San Fantin, La Fenice is just two minutes’ walk from Palazzo Molin, where our beautiful Canaletto Giardino apartment provides the perfect pied-à-terre for any music-lovers visiting the city.
For further information, visit www.teatrolafenice.it