Teatro La Fenice (pronounced [la feˈniːtʃe], “The Phoenix”) is an opera house in Venice, Italy. It is one of “the most famous and renowned landmarks in the history of Italian theatre”, and in the history of opera as a whole. Especially in the 19th century, La Fenice became the site of many famous operatic premieres at which the works of several of the four major bel canto era composers—Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, and Verdiwere performed.
In 1774, the Teatro San Benedetto, which had been Venice’s leading opera house for more than forty years, burned to the ground. By 1789, with interest from a number of wealthy opera lovers who wanted a spectacular new house, “a carefully defined competition” was organised to find a suitable architect. It was won by Gianantonio Selva who proposed a neoclassical style building with 170 identical boxes in tiers in a traditional horseshoe shaped auditorium, which had been the favoured style since it was introduced as early as 1642 in Venice. The house would face on one side a campo, or small plaza, and on the other a canal, with an entrance which gave direct access backstage and into the theatre.
However, the process was not without controversy especially in regard to the aesthetics of the building. Some thirty responses were received and, as Romanelli accounts, Selva’s was designated as the design to be constructed, the actual award for best design went to his chief rival, Pietro Bianchi. However, Selva’s design and finished opera house appears to have been of high quality and the one best suited to the limitations of the physical space it was obliged to inhabit.
Construction began in June 1790, and by May 1792 the theatre was completed. It was named “La Fenice”, in reference to the company’s survival, first of the fire, then of the loss of its former quarters. La Fenice was inaugurated on 16 May 1792, with an opera by Giovanni Paisiello entitled I giuochi d’Agrigento set to a libretto by Alessandro Pepoli.
But no sooner had the opera house been rebuilt than a legal dispute broke out between the company managing it and the owners, the Venier family. The issue was decided in favor of the Veniers.
At the beginning of the 19th century, La Fenice acquired a European reputation. Rossini mounted two major productions there: Tancredi in 1813 and Semiramide in 1823. Two of Bellini’s operas were given their premieres there: I Capuleti e i Montecchi in March 1830 and Beatrice di Tenda in March 1833. Donizetti, fresh from his triumphs at La Scala in Milan and at the Teatro di San Carlo in Naples, returned to Venice in 1836 with his Belisario, after an absence of seventeen years.
In December 1836, disaster struck again when the theatre was destroyed by fire. However, it was quickly rebuilt with a design provided by the architect-engineer team of the brothers, Tommaso and Giovanni Battista Meduna (it). The interior displays a late-Empire luxury of gilt decorations, plushy extravagance and stucco. La Fenice once again rose from its ashes to open its doors on the evening of 26 December 1837.
Giuseppe Verdi’s association with La Fenice began in 1844, with the premiere performance of Ernani during the carnival season. Over the next 13 years, the premieres of Attila, Rigoletto, La traviata, and Simon Boccanegra took place there.
During the First World War, La Fenice was closed, but it reopened to become the scene of much activity, attracting many of the world’s greatest singers and conductors. In 1930, the Venice Biennale initiated the First International Festival of Contemporary Music, which brought such composers as Stravinsky and Britten, and more recently Berio, Nono, and Bussotti, to write for La Fenice.
On 29 January 1996, La Fenice was completely destroyed by fire. Only its acoustics were preserved, since Lamberto Tronchin, an Italian acoustician, had measured the acoustics two months earlier.
Arson was immediately suspected. In March 2001, a court in Venice found two electricians, Enrico Carella and his cousin Massimiliano Marchetti, guilty of setting the fire. They appeared to have set the building ablaze because their company was facing heavy fines over delays in repair work in which they were engaged. Carella, the company’s owner, disappeared after a final appeal was turned down. He had been sentenced to seven years in prison. Marchetti surrendered and served a six-year sentence. Ultimately, Carella was arrested in February 2007 at the Mexico-Belize border, was extradited to Italy, and was released on day parole after serving 16 months.
After various delays, reconstruction began in earnest in 2001. In 650 days, a team of 200 plasterers, artists, woodworkers, and other craftsmen succeeded in recreating the ambiance of the old theatre, at a cost of some €90 million. As Gillian Price notes, “This time round, thanks to an enlightened project by late Italian architect Aldo Rossi and the motto ‘how it was, where it was’, it has been fitted out with extra rehearsal areas and state-of-the-art stage equipment, while the seating capacity has been increased from 840 to 1000.”
La Fenice was rebuilt in 19th-century style on the basis of a design by architect Aldo Rossi who, in order to obtain details of its design, used still photographs from the opening scenes of Luchino Visconti’s film Senso (1954), which had been filmed in the house. La Fenice reopened on 14 December 2003 with an inaugural concert of Beethoven, Wagner, and Stravinsky. The first staged opera was a production of La traviata, in November 2004.
Critical response to the rebuilt La Fenice was mixed. The music critic of the paper Il Tempo, Enrico Cavalotti, was satisfied. He found the colours a bit bright but the sound good and compact. However, for his colleague Dino Villatico of the La Repubblica, the acoustics of the new hall lacked resonance, and the colours were painfully bright. He found it “kitsch, a fake imitation of the past”. He said that “the city should have had the nerve to build a completely new theater; Venice betrayed its innovative past by ignoring it”.
Donna Leon’s debut novel, Death at La Fenice (1992), and the first in her Commissario (Detective) Guido Brunetti detective series, centers on a mystery surrounding the sensational death by cyanide poisoning of a famous orchestra conductor, in the midst of a production of La Traviata at La Fenice. In several scenes the opera house is described in meticulous detail, as it was at the time of writing, previous to the third fire.