The world's most beautiful opera house was the Teatro La Fenice in Venice, opened in 1792. It was totally destroyed by fire in 1996. Eight years later, a precisely reconstructed La Fenice (The Phoenix) has risen from the ashes.

Venice and opera are inseparable. The world's first opera house was the Teatro San Cassanio, in 1637 in Venice. The world's first great opera composer, the Cremonese Claudio Monteverdi, spent the last decades of his life in working in Venice, and died there in 1643. By 1678 there were ten opera houses in Venice. Wagner died in the city in 1883 and Stravinsky is buried here.

The first Teatro La Fenice opened on 16th May 1792 with Giovanni Paisiello's I Giuochi di Agrigento, the house being designed by Giannantonio Selva. It was given its name because it was built to replace an earlier theatre, the Teatro San Benedetto, which burnt down in 1773. The new theatre actually burnt down in 1790 while it was still being built; opened in 1792; and was destroyed by fire on 12th December 1836. It was rebuilt on essentially the original plan, reopening on 26th December 1837. The architects then were brothers Tommaso and Giambattista Meduna.

On the night of 29th January 1996 two electricians subcontracted to refurbish the wiring, facing penalties because they were behind with their work, deliberately set fire to the building in three places, intending these to distract both the fire brigade and subsequent investigators. The canal nearby was being dredged for maintenance so the firefighters lacked water. The fire blazed all night. The theatre was ruined, and the city of Venice and opera and architecture lovers everywhere mourned deeply. Enrico Carella and his cousin Massimiliano Marchetti were jailed in 2003.

The following morning Mayor Massimo Cacciari stood amid the smoking ruins and vowed, "Com'era, dov'era": As it was, where it was. It would be rebuilt perfectly, with all its dazzling gold and colours, its chandeliers and paintings, its ninety-six boxes in multiple tiers right around the horseshoe shape, and its seating for a relatively intimate 1500 people. The question of which version to rebuild had to be addressed, since it had been somewhat altered several times over the years, such as in 1807 when Napoleon visited Venice, now part of his empire, and an imperial box was installed. The current design includes this box. Numerous business problems delayed the restoration for many years, the cost going up to €60 million, and it finally opened for concerts on 14th December 2003. Riccardo Muti conducted Beethoven's overture The Consecration of the House as the first work.

Opera was not among the first works staged. The theatre closed after Lorin Maazel conducted the New Year's Day 2004 concert, to enable work on it to be fully completed. The first opera, on 12th November 2004, was La Traviata, which premiered here in 1853, though it was not a success then: being set in modern times made it seem absurd, and it was also regarded as obscene. For its 1953 centenary Maria Callas sang the title role. This time round it is being conducted by Maazel, who is La Fenice's new musical director, with Patrizia Ciofi as Violetta, Roberto Saccà as Alfredo, and Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Germont..

Other Verdi premieres at La Fenice were Ernani (1844), Attila (1846), Rigoletto (1851), and Simon Boccanegra (1857). Before that it premiered Rossini's, Tancredi (1813), Sigismondo (1814), and Semiramide (1823); as well as Bellini's I Capuleti ed i Montecchi. Later premieres include Stravinsky's, The Rake's Progress (1951) and Britten's The Turn of the Screw (1954).

Concise Oxford Dictionary of Opera
'Music Matters' talk, Radio 3, 14.11.2004
Opera-L archives, Nov. 1996:
The Guardian, 06.12.2003:,11711,1101253,00.html
The Scotsman, 15.12.2003:

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