It also proved true to its name (the ‘Phoenix’), rising up from the ashes of an earlier devastating fire in 1835 in the same design, by Selva’s pupils, and again after the fire in 1996 (see below)– neoclassical understatement outside, and, within, enough Late Empire excess to match all comers in the bel canto league. It’s hard to believe, but Selva was lampooned and criticized for his precocious functionalist design for the interior, which was not at all in the balanced, symmetrical fashion of the day.
The Sala Apollinea, the banqueting rooms, and especially the oval auditorium with its gilded boxes were the highlights. To an Italian opera maven, La Fenice suffered comparison only with the Teatro San Carlo in Naples for ‘genuine operatic tradition’ (Milan’s La Scala is a mere upstart) – a tradition that began with two decades of castrati, immensely popular though forbidden to don female attire ‘to the disappointment of many interested gentlemen’.
La Fenice had its low notes as well: the première of Verdi’s La Traviata in 1853 was so bad (it didn't help that the lead role of the consumptive young heroine was played by an overweight singer who looked too old for the part) that even the composer himself described it as a ‘fiasco’, although an improved performance redeemed the opera the next year. But Verdi could never stay unpopular for long, if not for his music, but for the rallying note he sounded in the Risorgimento. Under the Austrians, when official public life was denied to the Venetians, they would flock here, join in the patriotic choruses, and do all they could to niggle their overlords behind the cover of music.
In the 20th century La Fenice rejoined the musical vanguard. The Biennale initiated the First International Festival of Contemporary Music, and saw premières of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress (1951) and Britten’s The Turn of the Screw. The theatre was setting for the opening scenes of Visconti's 1954 film, Senso — which would aid in the third reconstruction of the theatre.
The Phoenix rises yet again
On January 29, 1996, La Fenice was closed for maintenance, when a fire broke out —set by a pair of electricians, whose company faced fines for work delays. Only the outer walls remained, along with measurements of the theatre's acoustics, taken two months before the fire.
Using the same Dov'é era, come era, 'where it was, the way it was' motto used during the rebuilding of St Mark's Campanile, the €90 million reconstruction of the theatre began in 2001 under the direction of architect Aldo Rossi, with a team of 200 craftsmen who completed the work in 650 days. New seats were added, raising the seating capacity from 840 to 1000, along with state of the art stage equipment.
Riccardo Muti opened the newly renovated La Fenice Theatre with a concert on 14th December 2003; almost a year later, the first opera, La Traviata, was staged.
Hours tours 9.30am-6pm on most days
Adm Tour €9; €6.50 6-26, over 65s; under 6 free
Ticket prices for operas begin at €15 ('listening only'); purchase from 9am-6pm through HelloVenezia (+39 041 2424) or on the theatre's own website.
Campo San Fantin
vaporetto Santa Maria del Giglio
+39 041 786511
Images by: baldeaglebluff, Amanda Slater