Topic: Venice Italy: Live Theater - Reopening of Teatro La Fenice.
From: Gloucester, MA
Registered: Mar 2003
posted January 09, 2004 12:40 PM
By Robert Hilferty
Updated: 4:29 p.m. ET Jan. 08, 2004Jan. 8 -
Opera was not on the program for the inaugural-week concerts marking the reopening of Teatro La Fenice, the celebrated Venice opera house, which had been closed since fire destroyed much of the building on Jan. 29, 1996.
"I think it's great that they rebuilt it," said Donna Leon, a mystery writer (author of "Death at La Fenice") and local resident, "but I don't take much interest in this opening because opera is not being performed." True. Opera will not take place until next November with "La Traviata" (one of five operas Verdi composed especially for this legendary opera house) when all the state-of-the-art technology included in the reconstruction is up and running. But the lineup of symphonic concerts performed during inaugural week beginning Dec. 14 was impressive (if not overwhelmingly exciting), and included quasi-operatic vocal and choral works performed not only by La Fenice's resident orchestra and choir but also by top-notch visiting ensembles such as the London Philharmonic and the Vienna Philharmonic. So at least we have a good idea how the new house sounds, and it sounds good.
La Fenice after the 1996 fire
And it looks good, too. Great, in fact. The white, columned façade with statues and the emblematic phoenix on Campo San Fantin is exquisite, as is the interior, which takes your breath away. The neoclassical elegance of the lobby and Apollinee halls—what with the chandeliers, grand staircase, faux marble walls and dramatic paintings—provides a restrained contrast to the burst of rococo opulence and Dionysian exuberance of the "sala teatrale," a fantasia of gold-leafed foliage, flowers, putti and nymphs. Radiating from the shimmering chandelier in the center of the ceiling are circular bands of different shades of blue, with floating mythical females, some toting instruments. This cerulean sky is continued down through on the walls of the boxes. We are in a magic garden (although it smells of freshly coated paint).
In the local parlance, this house was realized com'era, dov'era—how it was, where it was. It's as if you are walking into La Fenice for the very first time in 1837 (year after the first La Fenice, built in 1792, was burnt down and redesigned by the Meduna brothers). It's a paradox: old yet spanking new.
This was not easy to pull off, as Marcello Viotti, the new music director, recalls: "During the roundtable discussions for the reconstruction, which I took part in, questions would come up like 'What was the color of the seats?' The problem is that everybody had a different idea. They all said it was red, but which red? The same with the doors of the boxes: differing opinions about the molding design led to day-and-night fighting. Suddenly somebody remembered that one of these doors was sent to a repair shop two weeks before the fire. When we finally saw the door, it was absolutely different from any of the 16 or so opinions offered."
Craftsmen like Guerrino Lovato, who was in charge of all the reliefs and sculptures in the auditorium, had to work from photographs (not always entirely sharp), some ancient engravings, and Luchino Visconti's 1954 film "Senso." He admits that some of the original florid details of the reliefs are forever gone just by the new mannerisms of modern woodcarving. In order to preserve the original acoustical quality, he used exactly the same materials in the same spots, whether it be wood, paper-mache, stucco or plaster. Lovato also relates a not-so-well-known anecdote: "When the ceiling was first painted in 1837, the imperial Austrians were here. So the Italian craftsmen performed a little act of defiance then: the three graces up there add up to the Italian flag, as their colors are red, white and green respectively."
In spite of a few inaccuracies here and there, the painstaking, meticulous work had given us an authentic replica, a genuine facsimile, a convincing copy. La Fenice, like the phoenix, the mythical bird that is its namesake, has truly risen from its ashes. Tragedy was turned into triumph.
And the tragedy was so dumb. Apparently, two electricians were late with some work, so in order to avoid paying a $7,000 fine, set flames as some kind of delay tactic.
But at least stupidity and incompetence had nothing to do with the actual restoration, once the Venetians got their act together three years ago under the leadership of Mayor Paolo Costa. With the help of police, he kicked out an outrageously sluggish contractor (only 5 percent of the work was done well after the contract period's halfway point) and hired a new firm that worked around the clock. After two years, the theater is nearly completed.
"I understood that Venice without La Fenice was not Venice anymore," muses Costa. "It's not just a theater: it's a symbol. Everyone has been waiting for Venice to sink, and the last straw was that fire. But with the rebuilding we see that Venice is the city of the future."
Master Italian architect Aldo Rossi, who died in 1997, certainly created a house for the future. Working from the Medunas' original plans, he cleverly managed to expand backstage storage space and audience space (176 new seats were added, bringing the capacity to 990). There are also lifts for the stage. The piece de resistance: the Sala Rossi, built under the lagoon. It's the rehearsal room the orchestra never had, and doubles as a chamber music space seating 300.
"To just work in a old beautiful place is not much of a merit," says Giampaolo Vianello, the new intendant (general manager), "but to reconstruct a lost space and give it back to the world is a great opportunity." He intends to make La Fenice—which frankly has steadily lost much of its former glory since the '70s—a contender on the global stage. He has begun this process by replacing 40 percent of the orchestra members and about half the chorus. The results are impressive, but not yet world class, as demonstrated by the performances under the batons of Riccardo Muti and music director Viotti. Acoustically, the house at this point seems better suited for classical and early romantic pieces, as opposed to big, splashy late Romantic works, such as Mahler's Third Symphony, which was performed during opening festivities.
The inclusion of a solo concert by Elton John alongside the classical repertoire also indicates a new direction for a potentially conservative opera house. The 56-year-old rock star, who bought a palazzo on the Giudecca last year, said the stage: "I am humbled by the beauty of this city and La Fenice, and am playing in Venice for the very first time. I am very nervous." His eyeglasses have been downsized since his Captain Fantastic days, as has his voice which doesn't hit those high notes anymore, but he put on a good show nonetheless. Before launching into "Original Sin," he announced confidently, "I just bought a home here, but a home is a special place to be shared with someone. I'd like to dedicate the next song to the person I share it with: David." His partner, that is. The audience applauded enthusiastically. Times have certainly changed since "Rigoletto," not to mention "Crocodile Rock."
Later, at the dinner thrown at the Antico Arsenale (an impressive medieval structure where ships were built for the Crusades) Sir Elton—who was continuously beseiged by bejeweled countessas and other forms of Venetian aristocracy for, guess what, autographs!—quipped, "There have been better musicians than myself on La Fenice's stage. Thank you Venezia for being so generous." He was generous, too: he gave the concert for free, as a gift to his new hometown.
Come to think of it, the pop star's participation wasn't so groundbreaking after all since he was the one to turn that operatic warhorse, Verdi's "Aida," into a smash Broadway musical.
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