As opera fans we all know opera houses are grand buildings filled with beautifully designed interiors that enhance the amazing acoustics. Sopranos, tenors, and baritones all send their voices out in to the room to fill the domes of these beloved buildings. Have you ever wondered where the first opera house was built? The answer to that question is Venice, Italy. Since then hundreds of opera houses have built up around the world to bring this art form centered around musical drama to the masses.
Of course, this love of opera in Italy didn’t die down, in fact, opera is still a leading form of entertainment in Italian culture. This is why we have decided to compile a list of our favorite opera houses in Italy, the country where it all started.
1 – Teatri dell’opera di Roma
Translated to “opera house of Rome,” this musical establishment seats an intimate crowd of sixteen hundred people. Of course, this was not always the case. The original structure, which opened in November of 1880, originally held more than twenty-two hundred seats.
The original name of the Teatri dell’opera di Roma was Teatro Costani, named for Domenico Costanzi, the contractor who had it built. This opera house took eighteen months to build and its inaugural performance was Semiramide by Giochino Rossini.
The Costanzi became the Teatro Reale dell’Opera in 1926 when the Rome City Council bought it. Renovations were made but it wasn’t until nearly a decade after Italy became a republic following the reign of Benito Mussolini the Rome’s opera house was named Teatri dell’opera di Roma.
Of course, with new changes in the political climate, new restorations needed to be added to the opera house as well. Still, the acoustics in the Teatri dell’opera di Roma are considered by some the best in the world.
Some of the most notable performances have been 1964’s Le nozze di Figaro and Don Carlos in 1965. Carlo Maria Giulini and Luchino Visconti were the team who worked on both performances.
This operatic venue also boasts Baths of Caracalla, an outdoor theater in front of the Roman ruins.
2 – Teatro Massimo
Not only is Teatro Massimo the top opera house in Sicily, it is the biggest theater to enjoy opera in the entire country of Italy and the third largest in all of Europe. Opening its doors in 1897 the Teatro Massimo took thirty-three years to become a reality since its final inception in the year 1864. Designer Giovan Battista Filippo Basile started the project but after his death in 1891 Basile’s son Ernesto finished the job.
The reason this opera house took so long was because even though the project was first thought up by the Palermo Council in 1864 construction did not begin until January of 1874. Why we are not sure why but it seems that Sicily’s top architects and sculptor artists of that time were brought on to make the Council’s dreams a reality. Construction was halted in 1882 for eight more years. It wasn’t until twenty-two years after the first foundation was laid that the Teatro Massimo was complete. Verdi’s Falstaff was the inaugural opera performed.
Of course, time takes a toll on everything and large historic opera houses are no different. Still it seems that costly renovations, corruption, and politics closed the doors of Teatro Massimo once again and the opera house remained unoccupied for another twenty-three years.
The Teatro Massimo reopened its doors in May of 1997 just a few days before its centennial. In 1998 they performed Verdi’s Aida while the last touches were being put on the venue.
The infamous and dramatic scene where Sophia Coppola’s character dies at the end of Godfather III was filmed at the Teatro Massimo, which translates to “maximum theater.”
3 – Teatro di San Carlo
The third Italian opera house on our list is was originally named Real Teatro di San Carlo, real meaning “Royal.” It is coupled with the Royal Palace in Naples, Italy. Opening its doors in 1737 the Teatro di San Carlo is the oldest in the world that still holds performances today. This opera house also hosts ballet from April until June while operas run from January to May.
Designed by Giovanni Antonio Medrano and Angelo Carasale, the Teatro di San Carlo is shaped like a horse-shoe. The cost of construction seventy-five thousand ducats, an earlier form of Italian currency. When opening this Italian opera house was the biggest in the world with nearly fourteen hundred seats.
Nearly a century later a fire started in a ballet dress rehearsal and left serious damage to the building. Renovations, as ordered by King Ferdinand IV, only took ten months. The horse-shoe remained intact but had a hundred or so more seats.
Bombing damaged the Teatro di San Carlo during WWII. Once Naples was liberated in 1943 repairs were made and the first opera since the war was produced. It was a matinee showing of Puccini’s La Bohéme held on the day after Christmas in 1943.
The list of opera composers that have resided in the Teatro di San Carlo are impressive. Gioachino Rossini was featured from 1815 to 1822. Then Giovanni Pacini superseded Rossini. Donizetti took over next and composed operas for the Neopolitan house. Vincenzo Bellini’s first work was performed at the Teatro di San Carlo.
When Italy unified in 1861 Naples title as cultural capital of Italy was stripped when all the wealthy people moved North. This led to a brief closing in 1874 for one year’s time.
Enrico Caruso was booed while performing at the Teatro di San Carlo while performing L’elisir d’amore and swore he would never return to Naples. Fortunately for those who didn’t like his performance he kept true to his word.
4 – Teatro La Fenice
Meaning “The Phoenix Theater” Teatro La Fenice is a premiere opera house in Venice that first opened in the mid seventeen hundreds under the name Teatro San Benedetto. Forty years later it caught fire and nothing was left but rubble. About fifteen years later, the local opera lovers who had considerable wealth held a contest to find the best architect Italy had to offer. Gianantonio Selva won and he created the horse-shoe type of venue Venetians favored. The new opera house opened in 1792 and renamed La Fenice to honor its rising from the ashes. On May 16th, 1792 the company performed I giuochi d’Agrigento by Giovanni Paisiello.
Still, bad luck could not be avoided by the Phoenix and it was destroyed by fire a second time in December of 1836. The second rebuilding of the opera house happened fast and on December 26th of the next years was open again.
It was once said that all bad things happen in threes and we wonder if the Teatro La Fenice was the basis for that thought. Yes, in January 1996 fire struck again and the Phoenix burned to the ground. This time though it was found to be arson by the electricians that worked on the restoration. A concert of compositions by Beethoven, Wagner, and Stravinsky was the inaugural performance on December 14, 2003.
5 – Teatro Comunale di Bologna
Fire seems to love ancient opera houses because before the Teatro Comunale di Bologna came into existence, the premiere opera house in this region of Italy was the Teatro Malvezzi built in 1651. It burned down nearly a century later. The next project regrading a regional opera house was the Nuovo Teatro Publico, loosely translated to the New Public Theater, in 1763.
Designed by Antonio Galli Bibiena, the Teatro Comunale was the first key opera house to be owned by the public using their funds for construction. The boxes that were sold privately had one of the most unique contracts of its time. German composer Christoph Willibald Gluck wrote Il trionfo di Clelia (The Triumph of…) for the opera house’s inaugural performance. The design was original in its resemblance of a bell. Strangely the façade remained incomplete until 1936.
Various renovations were made throughout the nineteenth century and fire reclaimed a good deal of the stage in 1931. The Teatro Comunale would remain closed until 1935. The typical horse-shoe shaped seating arrangement was used instead of its original form, which was bell-shaped.
Giocchino Rossini presented twenty operas in the Teatro Comunale during the nineteenth century. Ten of Bellini’s operas were performed in the 1830’s. Verdi was performed in 1871 and Richard Wagner premiered Lohengrin in 1871. The German composer would go on to premiere many other operas he composed in Bologna, most notable is Reinzi and the Parsifal in January of 1914. It was during this time that the Teatro Comunale got its reputation as one of Italy’s riskier opera houses.
Currently boasting over one thousand seats the Comunale, as it is called locally, is the second oldest opera house in Italy behind the Teatro di San Carlo. Francesco Ernani is the current director at Teatro Comunale but they are finding funding to be a bit of a problem. During its six month season the Teatro Comunale presents eight full operas with six performances each.