Teatro La Fenice, Venice’s opera house, is a musical hub smack in the core of the city. Luiciano Pavarotti proclaimed it was “a jewel and architecturally the most beautiful theatre in Italy.” Beloved by both Venetians and the international community, it is renowned for its elegant design, superb performances and dramatic history. Like the mythical bird it is named after, The Phoenix has burned and risen from its ashes on more than one occasion.
And it’s not just traditional opera. La Fenice is also home to a philharmonic orchestra, and offers a rich programme for students and the local community. It cultivates emerging artists, and commissions young composers. Winning the yearly Premio Venezia competition can transform a young pianist’s career. Dance, jazz and exclusive parties are also on the programme – La Fenice donned Tiffany Blue for the gala inaugurating the new Venice boutique.
Venice has long been a theatrical force on the world stage. It was here that the first public opera was performed in 1637, allowing spectators to witness the startling new phenomenon previously known only in royal courts. When ticket holders experienced the sheer emotional power of the sung narrative, it created a social revolution.
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By the 18th century, the grandest of Venice’s seven theatres was San Benedetto, located where the Rossini Multiplex is today. Built by the Grimani family on land owned by the Veniers and later assigned to the Nobile Società dei Palchettisti – Noble Society of Boxholders – it was destroyed by fire in 1773 and shortly rebuilt on the same site. The Boxholders and the Veniers haggled over who owned the new theatre, and in 1787 a judicial ruling forced the Boxholders out.
Undeterred, the Boxholders decided to build a more lavish theatre in a finer location and call it ‘La Fenice.’ They bought land in a classy part of town, knocked down some houses and held a competition for the design, which was won by the architect Giannantonio Selva. Work began in 1791 and was completed just 18 months later, featuring a Neoclassical façade and 174 boxes all alike, gilded in gold. La Fenice was inaugurated on 16 May 1792 and promptly became one of the leading opera houses in Europe. Then, five years later, Napoleon arrived, and the Republic of Venice was no more.
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But La Fenice was still standing – for a time. On 13 December 1836, the theatre was engulfed in flames, destroying everything but the façade, foyer and the Sale Apollinee. Again the Boxholders leapt into action, appointing the architect Giambattista Meduna and his engineer brother, Tommaso, to resurrect The Phoenix. In less than a year, La Fenice was reborn.
During the next two centuries, composers such as Rossini, Stravinsky and Benjamin Britten dazzled spectators with world premieres. Verdi composed four of his operas for La Fenice, including La Traviata, which has become a staple of every season. Divas like Joan Sutherland and Maria Callas – who has an exhibition on the third floor – thrilled audiences with their vocal gymnastics.
Then, on 29 January 1996, a stunned world watched as La Fenice burned again, this time a victim of arson. By then, the Boxholders had ceded their shares to the Municipality of Venice, making the opera house publicly-owned. The mayor declared it would be rebuilt “where it was, how it was.” The Phoenix finally rose again from its ashes on 14 December 2003, reconstructed from a posthumous design by the celebrated architect, Aldo Rossi.
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Today the theatre looks much like it did in the 19th century, diligently restored, right down to the putti. There is a new Sala Rossi with a seating capacity of 190 and its own bridge entrance. During the day an audio guide lets you roam the theatre on your own, with the chance of sitting in the Royal Box during a live rehearsal. So book your seats and go to La Fenice. Taste the heights and depths of human emotion that only music can convey.
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