Venice has 'captured' the heart, mind and imagination of so many writers, poets, artists and historians. Venice is one of my favourite subjects in art, literature and history, and I am always eager to learn more and look more at this unique and special place. This Venice blog is my way of collecting the wealth of images, poems, prose and impressions of Venice.

Thursday 30 January 2014

La Fenice - remembering the night of 29 January 1996

As you might have guessed from the right hand side of my blog page, I love using social media and amongst many things, it helps me to stay connected with news and happenings in Venice.  

Throughout today, I’ve been receiving updates and reminders about a disastrous event in contemporary Venetian history – because as I write, it is the 18th anniversary of the night that La Fenice opera house burned down on 29 January 1996.

Although I was living in Venice when the fire took place, on the night of the fire I was staying with my family near London.  I vividly recall looking up at the television as a BBC news item announcing the fire flashed across the screen, and I wondered how the wooden structure of the theatre, or indeed how this part of Venice – with its tightly packed buildings and ancient structures - could survive such a major fire. 

‘La Fenice’ is of course an apt name for Venice’s famous opera house - it means ‘phoenix’ -and like the bird of Greek mythology, La Fenice has risen from the ashes of its predecessor twice since it was first built in May 1792 (ironically to replace the earlier San Benedetto theatre – which had also burnt down in 1774).

Venice’s La Fenice theatre is renowned as one of Europe’s leading and most beautiful opera theatres.  Many well loved operas were premiered in Venice at La Fenice including Rossini’s Tancredi in February 1813.

In 1836, the theatre was completed destroyed by fire, and a replacement building by Giovanni Battista Medusa was inaugurated in December 1837.  It was this 'new' building which saw the premieres of Verdi’s Rigoletto in March 1851, La Traviata in March 1853 and Simon Boccanegra in March 1857.

The opening sequences of Luciano Visconti’s 1954 film, Senso (which is set in 1866 during the Austrian occupation of Venice) were shot on location at La Fenice.  The film depicts a performance of Verdi’s Il Trovatore at La Fenice, as Italian patriots distribute leaflets calling for an end to foreign occupation and calling for the unification of Venice with Italy. 

In the 20th century, Maria Callas’ 1949 performance as Elvira in Bellini’s I puratani at La Fenice was highly acclaimed, and her success in assuming the role at short notice marked a turning point in her career.   The Venice Biennale commissioned notable modern composers to write works for La Fenice including Stravinsky, who premiered The Rake’s Progress in September 1951, and Britten, whose work, Turn of the Screw, premiered in September 1954.

Decorated in the neo-classical style, and filled with ornate gilt interiors, frescoes and huge Murano glass chandeliers, it was, according to Luciano Pavarotti 'a jewel and architecturally  the most beautiful theatre in Italy'.  La Fenice has also played an important role in social life in Venice for hundreds of years - with its tiers of box seats stacked vertically one above another, opera patrons are fully on display for each other, and the film, Senso, depicts how opera-goers caught up on gossip and the latest happenings at the theatre.

Campo San Fantin, where La Fenice is located, is a small campo, filled with wooden buildings - hotels, homes, restaurants and bars -  all packed closely together.  On the night of the fire, the two adjacent canals had recently been drained for dredging and maintenance work.  Although the fire department were at the scene of the fire almost immediately, they were hampered by the ferocity of the blaze and the need to use water from distant canals.  The available water pressure was insufficient to allow any meaningful attack on the blaze.  

The decision made must have been heartbreaking - to let the city's beloved, historic opera theatre burn so that Venice could be saved.  With embers falling on nearby buildings, fire crews evacuated the area and focused on keeping the fire from spreading.  At around 11pm that night, the wooden roof of the theatre collapsed, sending huge flames into the air.  

La Fenice burnt down to its external walls.  I've experienced a house fire, and it's easy for me to imagine how its famously ornate interiors and rococo salons started to smoulder and burn, and how the tiers of blazing boxes began to collapse and fall.  As well, the theatre's collection of musical instruments, sets and costumes were lost.  

Fortunately - remarkably - no lives were lost, and as I understand it, the damage to nearby property was contained.   

I never got to experience Medusa 1836 theatre - I’d been meaning to visit La Fenice either via a guided tour or by attending a performance – but I hadn’t gotten around to it.  

As is typical of Venice, La Fenice was rebuilt ‘come’era e dov’era (as it was, and where it was).  Reconstruction of the theatre commenced around 18 months after the fire.  The design of this new building closely copies Medusa’s 19th century building, but it is larger (it now seats 1,000 patrons) and it also incorporates modern stage equipment, a new rehearsal space, and modern fire prevention measures including a roof made of steel rather than of wood.  

The architects used still photographs from the opening scenes of Senso to design the building, and a team of over 200 hundred artisans including plasterers, woodworkers and visual artists were involved in the reconstruction of its lavishly decorated interiors.  The Venetian fabric firm, Rubelli, had supplied wall fabrics for the 1837 Medusa building, and was able to use these same patterns for the new building.  

The latest incarnation of La Fenice opened in December 2003 with a concert conducted by Riccardo Muti.  Verdi’s La Traviata was re-staged in November 2004.

In 2007, I had the fantastic opportunity to arrange a cocktail reception in La Fenice’s lovely Salle Apollinee rooms, followed by a private viewing of the theatre.  It was surreal to step inside this thoroughly modern building and marvel at the brilliance of the faux rococo interiors, and to remember those awful scenes of Venice on fire on that night of 29 January 1996.

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