by Roderick Conway Morris

| | | | | | | | | | | | |
Teatro La Fenice following the fire on 29-30 January 1996

A Tragedy of Errors

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 10 February 1996


The patient was killed by the cure. While works were in progress to provide the Fenice opera house, which has frequently been described as the most beautiful in the world, with a new anti-fire system, it was almost entirely destroyed by a blaze that lasted all night between 29-30 January.

An investigating magistrate, Felice Casson, is conducting a judicial inquiry, which could eventually lead to the prosecution of some of those involved. And, although the investigation has yet to issue any conclusions, many eye-witness testimonies give the strong impression that the theater was not the victim of an act of God but of human folly.

On the night of the fire a single security guard was entrusted with watching this large, warren-like building. The fire was not detected until it was burning fiercely. It seems very probable that the old alarm systems had been turned off before the new ones could be activated. The theater's main public bar (which, for aesthetic reasons, does not have modern fire doors of the kind fitted in the area of the staff bar in the back-stage part of the building) was being used as a workers' canteen, despite the fact that there are numerous alternative bars within 2-3 minutes' walk of the theater. The fire curtain dividing the auditorium from the backstage area is reported not to have been fully closed. There even appears to have been a small fire in the weeks before the conflagration and nothing done subsequently to increase vigilance.

All the canals abutting directly on the theater were drained for dredging at the same time, making it impossible for fire launches to get close to the building at key points. The miracle was that the fire did not spread to adjoining buildings, which could have led to the destruction of a wide swathe of central Venice.

The theater was owned by Venice's Comune (Municipality), but run by the Ente Autonomo Teatro La Fenice, a para-state body (one of 13 such opera house set-ups in Italy), which received a large annual subsidy from central government funds. Such bodies as the latter were, like many other organizations in Italy's First Republic, subject to 'lottizzazione' - the carve-up of posts on a percentage basis according to the relative strengths of the political parties in the country's coalition governments.

The present Superintendent of the Ente Autonomo is Gianfranco Pontel, who previously held office in the Christian-Democrat- and Socialist-dominated coalition that ruled Venice before it fell during the 'Tangentopoli' (Bribecity) crisis - and Pontel's appointment to his present job was a highly controversial one. Hardly less so was Pontel's subsequent choice for artistic director of 85-year-old Francesco Siciliani, who seldom came to Venice from Rome.

Since the fire, there have been public calls for the resignations of Pontel, the Fenice's governing council and the Mayor, former communist and Venice University philosopher, Massimo Cacciari, but no one has so far stepped down. Both Cacciari and Pontel have been co-opted on to a special commission, appointed by the government to rebuild the theater. The panel has been given extraordinary powers to award contracts without going through normal procedures.'

Both the Muncipality and the Ente Autonomo have supported the idea of rebuilding La Fenice 'dov'era, com'era' (where it was, how it was), echoing the phrasing of the city's decision in 1902 to reconstruct a replica of the Campanile after its sudden collapse (in that case, principally the result of old age). However, the reconstruction of La Fenice on this basis raises more complex issues. Should the new Fenice be a recreation of the original 18th-century Selva design, or the post-fire-of-1836 version stripped of its subsequent modifications, and so on?

Francesco Amendolagine, a professor at Venice's University Institute of Architecture, has estimated the cost of rebuilding at about 134 billion lire ($85 million). Italy's central government has voted through an emergency contribution of 20 billion lire and insurance policies would yield a further 25 billion (if they are paid in full). Much of the rest will have to be met by voluntary contributions and loans (the Municipality having already taken one out for 20 billion lire).

There is already a plethora of different appeals in Italy and abroad, with new ones being set up every day, but foreign fund raisers have said that they will not release any money at once. According to the office of Save Venice Inc in New York: 'The money is being placed in an escrow account and will not be forwarded to Venice until firmer plans regarding the Fenice have been made'. Foreign donors should also remember that if they make their contributions to their local Venice conservation organizations the money will not be liable to Italian taxes.

Meanwhile, in Venice the distinction between La Fenice as a building and La Fenice as an organization that employs 315 people, including a resident orchestra and chorus, has become blurred. There has even been the suggestion that some money raised by the general appeals for the rebuilding of the Fenice theater be used to finance a large tent - the cost of which to hire alone has been put at 450 million lire a year (about $285,000), or 650 million lire ($413,000) for two years - to be erected on the Tronchetto, a man-made island near the Rail Station, so that the scheduled season can open in March as previously planned. And, though the theater is no more, no refunds of tickets already bought are being given.

Massimo Cacciari, whilst apparently backing the plan for the Tronchetto tent, offered an additional scenario in which, despite the fact that it has become virtually impossible for visiting conductors to be allowed to perform at La Fenice with their own orchestras (even though there were many nights when the theater was not in use), the Fenice orchestra should tour the leading musical theaters of the world. 'I am sure we will get the fullest co-operation from all the great operatic houses in offering hospitality to our theater and orchestra,' he said at a press conference on the afternoon after the fire. 'And, when La Fenice returns to La Fenice it will be better known, have more recognition and be more loved than ever before.'

Apart from the practical difficulty of finding space in major opera-house programmes planned several years in advance, and of financing such foreign excursions, it is by no means certain that the Fenice orchestra is actually presently fitted to undertake such an enterprise.

'I have known La Fenice since the 1950s and the days of such triumphs as the premier of 'The Rake's Progress', said Alan Curtis, harpsichordist, conductor and until recently, Professor of Music at the University of California in Berkeley. 'Like other houses it has had its ups and downs, but the downs have become more and more frequent, and since Gomez ceased to be artistic director in the late '80s, its status has fallen to that of a provincial theater. This is a great pity because, given that Venice is still so important in the visual arts, for its exhibitions and art collections, there is no reason why its great musical history should not be maintained.'

Curtis attributed the Fenice's marginalization to the excessive power of its unions, the style of its bureaucracy, and lack of stimulating imports. Whereas once, he said, he could bring his own orchestra, Il Complesso Barocco (which played and recorded Monteverdi's 'Poppea' at La Fenice in 1980, for example), he and other conductors are now invited on condition that they use the in-house forces. Curtis, who last conducted the latter in 1993, added: 'About half the orchestra is good. Indeed, there are some really fine players among them - it's just that they don't have the chance to shine when they have to put up with some really bad players, who in the present circumstances simply can't be got rid of.'

'I think setting up a tent is a terrible idea,' said Curtis. 'After all Venice can live without opera for a year or two. Every penny should be spent on rebuilding the theater. And if La Fenice is to recover from this disaster it is essential that Pontel, who was completely unsuitable for the post in the first place, be forced to resign.'

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023