by Roderick Conway Morris

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Lux Films
Venetian demonstrators against Austrian rule at La Fenice in Visconti's film Senso, 1954

New Life in Venice's Old Opera

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 10 January 1992


The foyer of the Fenice on the opening night of Verdi's Don Carlo, for the first performance of the Venice opera house's special bicentennial season, would have gladdened the heart of the most morose and pessimistic Siberian fur trapper.

Nor was the old-world, and agreeably unsnotty, urbanity of the occasion interrupted by the kind of pre-show act staged at La Scala in Milan the week before, in which animal-rights protestors bared their breasts with cries of 'Better naked than in furs!'. Nonetheless, as the Fenice pelts were set aside, almost as revealing, if more conventional, displays of daring became apparent - though for total effect no-one could quite compare with Dame Joan Sutherland, who looked stunning in a plum-coloured decollete gown; still, in retirement, every inch the diva, she had returned as a spectator to the theatre where she made her Italian debut.

The first public opera ever was staged in Venice in 1637, and the last of its numerous opera houses, the Gran Teatro La Fenice (the 'Phoenix'), was inaugurated in May 1792. The Fenice marks the architectural and decorative culmination of Venice's exuberant theatrical tradition, and its sumptuously carved, stuccoed, painted and gilded interior still has the power to amaze the most blasÉ theatre-goer.

The Fenice's architect, Giannantonio Selva, was selected by competition, and had to address some specific requirements, such as the provision of ample space for serving coffee 'and other comestibles', and a 20-foot-long landing stage for gondolas (which are 32 feet long). Playful touches, like a mock lighthouse on the side of the building where three canals meet, were Selva's own. Since Venice was a republic no royal box was envisaged, but one was created in 1808 for Napoleon. The Fenice burned down in 1836 (the newly-fitted Austrian 'fire-proof' stove held responsible was about the only thing left intact), yet the theatre lived up to its name, rising from the ashes in almost identical form within just six months.

The Fenice's 900-seat auditorium is the smallest of the world's metropolitan opera houses (La Scala and Covent Garden seat about 2,000, the Met over 3,000). 'It's the ideal size,' said John Fisher, the Fenice's artistic director, 'which, combined with a near-perfect acoustic, make it superb for staging everything from Mozart, which is not really suitable for larger spaces, to 19th- century grand opera and modern works.'

The recruitment two years back of Fisher, a 41-year-old Scotsman from Glasgow, was a remarkable event - there had, after all, been non-Italian popes before, but never a foreign 'direttore artistico' of a major theatre. And, given that such appointments can be subject to intensive horsetrading and party political carve-ups, it says a lot for Fisher's musical credentials that he got the job. (A recent Italian magazine survey of top artistic posts, listing party affiliations in brackets after each name, was reduced to designating him as 'ing.', for 'English').

The choice looks to have been a sound one. With virtually nothing planned when he took over, Fisher has put together an ample and varied bicentennary programme. Five of the works - Verdi's Rigoletto and La Traviata, Rossini's L'Italiana in Algeria and Semiramide, and Britten's The Turn of the Screw - were originally premiered at the Fenice. Others productions will include Donizetti's Lucia de Lammermoor, Puccini's Turandot and Berg's Wozzek.

'The older generation of Venetian opera-goers', said Fisher, 'were brought up on a diet of modern opera as well as classics, and the Fenice has a long tradition of introducing new works.' (He hopes that the theatre will soon be able to commission new operas as it did in the past.)

The Fenice is also very attractive in terms of prices, thanks to state and local subsidies that amount this year to 50 billion lire: the best seats cost $60-$80; middling ones $55-$70, and cheaper ones $20-$35 (with even the latter affording a good sound and a reasonable view).

During the 1980s the Fenice orchestra and chorus gained something of a reputation for uneveness. To judge by the first night of Don Carlo, when the orchestra put in a spirited and committed performance under the baton of the energetic Israeli conductor Daniel Oren, this previous erraticism was partly the fault of uncertain direction.

Italian theatres have also had a poor record for labour troubles. 'Some colleagues elsewhere', said Fisher, 'seem to think it must be terrible working in Italy.' But, he said, though the Italians tend to be more vocal about their grievances, the reality was no more problematic than running an opera house in any other country. And, indeed, since Fisher came to the Fenice not a single performance has been lost due to disputes, whilst other houses, such as Covent Garden and San Francisco, have been brought to a standstill by strikes.

Next month the Fenice looks West for the Carnival season with a series of 'Homage to Gershwin' concerts. Future projects include a production of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Gondoliers - for which technical, and possibly even musical, advice from those plying their trade in the canals around the theatre will certainly not be lacking.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023