Teatro La Fenice in Venice is one of the most beautiful opera houses in Europe. It is really worth taking a close look at it. During your trip to Venice, you can either attend an opera or a concert, or visit the theatre. Even if you can’t make it to Venice, there are several possibilities to admire La Fenice such as browsing their archives or watching the performances online.
In this post, I will first introduce you to the historical background of La Fenice, before I give you more information on how you can admire it yourself.
History of Teatro La Fenice
In 1789, after the San Benedetto theatre was destroyed by fire, the Nobile Società di Palchettisti (Noble Association of Box-holders) raised the idea for a new opera house in Venice. They proposed to build a larger and more sumptuous opera house on another location, between Contrada Santa Maria Zobenigo and Contrada Sant’Angelo. It would be named ‘La Fenice’, refering to the phoenix, the mythical bird which rises from the ashes.
DID YOU KNOW? In 1935, the box-holder owners ceded their share in La Fenice to the Comune di Venezia. Hence, it went from private to public ownership.
A public tender invited Italian and foreign architects to design an Italian theatre, with good visibility and acoustics. The requirements included 5 tiers of boxes with at least 35 boxes per tier. These closed boxes are a typical Italian feature. Other theatres used galleries with open boxes. This created a private theatrical space where you would feel at home, which was important for the noblemen of Venice to entertain their relationships.
DID YOU KNOW? The Royal Box (which you can see in the banner above the article) was added in 1808 on the demand of Napoleon. Since then, it has been modified several times, depending on the political regime in power. In 1946, when Italy became a republic, the royal coat was replaced by the San Marco lion (see my post ‘A short introduction to the complicated history of Venice’).
The Italian architect Giannantonio Selva won the tender with his proposal for a neoclassical style building with 174 identical boxes in tiers in a traditional horseshoe shaped auditorium. On one side, the theatre would face a campo, which was unique in that period. All of the approx. 30 theatres which were built in Venice in the 16th and 18th century were hidden in a calle. La Fenice was the first one to have a monumental facade on a campo. This suggestion really appealed to the Venetian nobility who wanted a public display of their social status. The other side of the theatre had to face a canal, to ensure a water entrance to the backstage and the theatre.
The works evolved very quickly. Houses were demolished and the canal at the back was dug. The interior decorations are lush and overwhelming. Everywhere you look, you are surrounded by gold and mirrors. The entire building lives in the lap of luxury and opulence. Gran Teatro La Fenice was inaugurated on May 16, 1792 (on the Festa della Sensa) with the opera I Guochi d’Agrigento of Giovanni Paisiello.
INSIDER TIP: Take a look at the clock on the ceiling above the stage. In the 19th century, La Fenice was used as a business club avant la lettre where noblemen would spend their day. The clock reminded them when it was time to go home.
Since the opening in 1792, La Fenice has risen twice from its ashes. In 1836, the theatre was destroyed by a fire caused by a badly functioning heater. Only the foyer and the Apollo rooms were spared from the fire. Teatro La Fenice was rebuilt in one year by Giambattista and Tommaso Meduna. In 1996, a huge fire destroyed the theatre almost entirely, while it was closed for maintenance. The fierce blaze was raised on purpose by 2 electricians who didn’t agree with the fines for their late delivery. The facade of the building is the only element which completely survived the two fires.
The reconstruction followed the design of Aldo Rossi, who died in 1997 before the restoration works started. More than 300 artisans applied old techniques from plaster-making to woodwork, chandeliers and gold-leaf decoration to restore most of the elements as they had been originally designed. At the same time, modern technics such as individual air-conditioning under the seats and state-of-the-art stage equipment were installed. Extra rehearsal areas have also been added and the seating capacity was increased from 840 to 1,126. On May 8, 2004, the restored Teatro La Fenice was inaugurated with Verdi’s La Traviata, which had also premiered in this theatre.
INSIDER TIP: You can find plenty of detailed information about the architectural evolution of the theatre on the website of Teatro La Fenice.
Attend an opera in Venice
At the beginning of the 19th century, La Fenice acquired a European reputation as one of the most prestigious opera houses. Many important composers wrote operas specifically for this prominent theatre. Examples are Gioachino Rossini with Tancredi (1813) and Semiramide (1823) and Vincenzo Bellini with I Capuleti e i Montecchi (1830) and Beatrice di Tenda (1833). Giuseppe Verdi’s association with La Fenice started in 1844, with the premiere of Ernani. His operas Attila, Rigoletto, La Traviata, and Simon Boccanegra were also performed for the first time in La Fenice. In 1947, Maria Callas made her debut at La Fenice in Richard Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde. Besides operas, many singers and conductors organized their first nights at La Fenice. An example is Igor Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress in 1951 (see also ‘Venetian grandeur at the San Michele cemetery’).
Still today, Teatro La Fenice has a very diverse and well-filled program of stunning operas, concerts and ballets. The coming weeks, you can for instance watch Il Barbiere di Sevigla (Gioachino Rossini), Tosca (Giacomo Puccini) and Madama Butterfly (Giacomo Puccini). The 2019/2020 season starts on October 12. The first opera of the new season will be Don Carlo of Giuseppe Verdi. Other performances include A Hand of Bridge (Samuel Barber), Il Castello del Principe Barbablù (Béla Bartók), Duse (Alessandra Ferri and the Hamburg Ballett), Rigoletto (Giuseppe Verdi) and L’Elisir d’Amore (Gaetano Donizetti). You can find the entire calendar, including a description, pictures and videos, on the website of Teatro La Fenice.
INSIDER TIP: If you would like to spend an evening in style and attend a performance in the grandeur of Teatro La Fenice, you can easily book your tickets via their website. As they are often sold out long in advance, it’s best to do this as soon as you have booked your trip.
Visit Teatro La Fenice
To admire the stunning building and to grasp its history, I suggest you visit Teatro La Fenice. The ticket allows you to access the foyer, the Apollo rooms and the parterre. From the Royal Box, you have a great view on the stage and the entire theatre. If you are lucky, there might be a rehearsal ongoing which you can listen to. You will also see the original model of Teatro La Fenice, which architect Selva used to present his concept at the competition in 1790. Finally, there is also a Maria Callas exhibition, who started her career at La Fenice.
INSIDER TIP: Teatro La Fenice is open every day from 9.30 until 18.00. However, opening hours can differ when there are performances. Don’t forget to check the website before your visit.
The audioguide is very interesting and gives you plenty of information about the history of the building, the different fires and the phases of the restoration, the architects and the techniques they used and so on. You also get to learn about operas and composers while you walk around the building. The audioguide is available in 7 languages: Italian, English, German, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Russian.
INSIDER TIP: You need your identity card in exchange for the (free) audioguide. You cannot borrow one with any other type of document. Alternatively, you can download the audioguide on your mobile to prepare your visit.
If you take your time to admire the opulent details of the building and to listen to the different modules of the audioguide, you should foresee approx. 2 hours. Visiting La Fenice is therefore perfect to escape the crowds in Venice for a couple of hours or to hide for the rain.
Enjoy La Fenice from home
If this article made you curious, there are plenty of options to enjoy La Fenice from anywhere in the world.
On the website, you can browse the historical archives of Teatro La Fenice. Many original documents, starting from 1787, have been digitized and made available for the public. There are pictures, letters, sketches of scenes, opera booklets, administrative documents and so on. It is really a joy to browse the archive and stumble upon intriguing documents or beautiful pictures. I found for instance a handwritten letter from Giuseppe Verdi thanking Teatro La Fenice.
If you want to see an opera in La Fenice but can’t make it to Venice, you can watch their live broadcasts on Twitter or Facebook or watch videos of the performances on YouTube. You can also download the app of Teatro La Fenice and listen to the audiotour to learn about its history.
Finally, there are plenty of books that can bring La Fenice to your home. There are photography and history books such as The Gran Teatro La Fenice or a reproduction of Tommaso Meduna’s book Il Teatro La Fenice In Venezia Edificato Dall’architetto Antonio Selva Nel 1792 E Ricostruito In Parte Il 1836. I you are interested in crime series set in La Fenice, I can recommend The Venetian Masquerade of Philip Gwynne Jones or Death at La Fenice and Falling in Love of Donna Leon.
Enjoy your visit!
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