Naples opera house reopens after spectacular renovation

Gramophone28th Jan 2010
La Clemenza di Tito opens the renovated Teatro San Carlo (credit: Francesco SqueLa Clemenza di Tito opens the renovated Teatro San Carlo (credit: Francesco Squeglia)

The Teatro San Carlo, Naples's historic opera house, formally opened its doors to the public after restructuring work with a performance of Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito yesterday evening, the 254th anniversary of the composer's birth.

A capacity audience of 1400, including the Italian president Giorgio Napolitano, witnessed the austere but elegant spectacle of Luca Ronconi's production, conducted by the theatre's current musical director Jeffrey Tate, with Gregory Kunde in the title role.

The house’s successful reconstruction, on time and within budget, will be a source of pride in a city all too often associated with other headlines. The renovation work was completed last year under the direction of architect Elisabetta Fabbri and is intended to return Teatro San Carlo to its condition following Antonio Niccolini's rebuilding after the fire of 1816. The project, advanced in two main stages in 2008 and 2009, was made possible by a grant of €67m from the Campania region and involved 300 workers day and night.

Most striking is the use of gold decorations and scarlet velvet, while the stage curtain was brought back to life with thousands of micro-injections of colour. Two new rehearsal rooms occupying an area of more than 4000 square metres, new stage machinery and near-silent air conditioning now make the San Carlo one of the most up-to-date of all opera theatres.

Even by Italian standards the Teatro San Carlo has always been surrounded by superlatives. When it originally opened in 1737 it was the largest opera house in the world, and it is the oldest in continuous use in Europe. Many famous premieres have taken place there, while the 18th-century Neapolitan opera school – composers such as Porpora, Traetta, Jomelli, Cimarosa and Paisiello – flourished thanks to the theatre and the cultural hub that it represented. As Naples became established as the musical capital of Europe, Gluck and Haydn came to regard performances at the San Carlo as indispensable to success.

When the theatre opened it was famous for its rich blue upholstery and gold decorations, the traditional colours of the ruling Bourbons. After the fire of 1816 it reopened the following year with Johann Simon Mayr's Il sogno di Partenope. Stendhal attended and hailed it “The most beautiful theatre in the world”. From 1815 to 1822 Rossini, as director of the royal opera houses, managed the San Carlo and wrote 10 of his operas during the period. Only in 1854 was the interior colour changed to the vivid red it wears today. Though damaged during the Second World War in 1943, the house was quickly repaired and reopened in a matter of months.

The San Carlo's new opera season continues in March with Maria Stuarda, which Donizetti wrote for the theatre in 1834. In the meantime Tate is to step down, citing health reasons. It is appropriate, perhaps, that he should go out on such an auspicious note, and with the same opera with which he made his Covent Garden debut in 1982.

Charles Searson

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