21.2.11

A Night at the Opera

17 December 1894 - Venice, Italy

Teatro La Fenice
It’s a night at the opera for me at one of the most famous opera houses of all time--Teatro La Fenice or the Phoenix Theatre.

La Fenice’s predessor, the San Benedetto Theatre, was Venice’s leading opera house for forty years. Then in 1774 it burnt to the ground. When it was rebuilt, a legal dispute broke out between the managers and the owners. The landlords won, so the opera company decided to build their own theatre.

In 1790 they began construction and opened two years later. The christened it “The Phoenix” to celebrate survival of both the fire and the loss of their former quarters. By the beginning of the next decade the Phoenix was famous throughout Europe.

In 1836, La Fenice burnt to the ground, but arose from the ashes like her namesake even grander than before. This is the theatre I will be visiting tonight. The inside glitters with Venetian glass chandeliers and gold gilding everywhere. I came early so I could gawk at the interior.

Sadly this will also burn down in 1996. Luckily in 2001 Venice will rebuild it, doing their best to replicate it exactly as it was. They are doing renovations in 2659 and want me to bring back as much detail as I can, so they will be sure to get it right to the "nth" degree.

This is hardly the only opera house in Venice. Indeed, this city opened the first public opera house, the Teatro di San Cassiano, in 1637. The first opera may have been performed in Florence in 1597, but Venice gave opera to the world. Before then it was only entertainment for aristocrats. Unfortunately, some of those early performances saw the rise of the prima donnas and their “duels.” The bombastic ladies would stop the show, trying to see who could hit the highest note while the rowdy audience cheered them on. A sort of vocal fist-a-cuffs.

Tonight La Fenice will be presenting the work of one of the greatest Victorian opera composers, Giuseppe Verdi. The opera will be Attila, based on Attila, König der Hunnen ("Attila, King of the Huns") by Friedrich Ludwig Zacharias Werner. It’s premier performance back in 1846 was at this very theater. I suppose, while one can hardly call Attila the founder of Venice, he was certainly the inspiration. The opera ends with a local beauty avenging her father by stabbing Attila. I doubt any natives will cry over this sad ending.

Giuseppe Verdi
I heard that Giuseppe Verdi is visiting Venice and plans to attend tonight. The great master is now eighty-one and was composing operas up until last year! The old boy will live to 1901, very good run for this day and age. Verdi is one of the most influential composers of his day. Later critics will think he’s too melodramatic, but Victorians love melodrama. One can cry all they want at the opera without embarrassment, giving the dears a much needed outlet.

Perhaps I better take an extra handkerchief, even if it is Attila the Hun.

A scene from Verdi's Attila - Our heroine mourns her dead father and explains to Attila that Italian women get their courage from their "love for their motherland." (Bring tissues.)

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