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The historical theater Teatro di San Carlo, located in Naples, Italy, was an idea of Charles VII, a Bourbon King. The existing theater at the time, Teatro San Bartolomeo built in 1621, was too small and old. Charles VII wanted to bestow Naples with a grand theatre for future operas and ballets. Teatro di San Carlo opened its doors on November 4, 1737, and since then it has premiered work from some of the most well-known composers of their generation.

It is one of the oldest active operatic theaters in the world today. Rossini and Pacini debuted work here, among others, and the number of operas that have made their way to this stage is endless.

Let’s take a look at some of the opera that premiered at the Teatro di San Carlo since its opening.


1. Armida

This three-act opera was composed by Giochino Rossini, a prominent musical writer of his time. The libretto was written in Italian by Giovanni Schmidt, who was inspired to adapt the Torquato Tasso epic poem Jerusalem Delivered, or La Gerusalemme liberata. A terrible fire partially destroyed the Teatro di San Carlo in 1816 and, in the following year, this opera was commissioned to celebrate its reopening.

It is said that the role of Armida in this opera was the lengthiest, most complicated and challenging character Rossini had ever written. Spanish singer Isabel Cobrand took on the challenge that November evening in 1817 and the coloratura, or complex melody, that came along with the job.

There have been some modern reproductions of this opera but not at the San Carlo. In 1952 it was staged at the Teatro Comunale Florence, and in 1993 a performance was held at the Rossini Opera Festival held every August in Pesaro, Italy, where the composer was born.


2. Caterina Cornaro

Also known as a tragedia lirica, this opera is written in two acts by Gaetano Donizetti with an Italian libretto by Giacomo Sacchèro based on the life of the title character who served as the Queen of Cyprus, an East Mediterranean island in the late 1400s. This opera premiered at the Teatro di San Carlo on January 12, 1844.

Originally commissioned for the Karntnertor Theater in Vienna but, due to another opera by Franz Lecher released that had a similar subject, Bartolomeo Morelli, who first requested the work, canceled with Donizetti. Still, the composer wanted to finish it and, while working on another opera, he looked for another theater to premiere Caterina Cornaro.

That theater was the Teatro di San Carlo. However, the reception was not good, and it is said that the audience “booed.” This was due to Donizetti inability to be at the rehearsals or have a hand in the production. He is quoted to writing that it would fail and said it would be a “catastrophe.” Donizetti reworked Caterina Cornaro, and it was staged in 1845 in Parma. This was the last opera of Donizetti’s that would premiere when he was still alive.


This woodcut print by Giuseppe Barberis depicts the Teatro di San Carlo in 1894, close to a century after its fire incident.

This woodcut print by Giuseppe Barberis depicts the Teatro di San Carlo in 1894, close to a century after its fire incident.


3. Saffo

Giovanni Pacini is the composer of our next three-act opera with a libretto written by Salvadore Cammarano. Based on a play by Franz Grillparzer about a poet from Greece who writes about love during the 42nd Olympic games, which has a contest in poetry. Saffo is the title character who is opposed to the custom of throwing people over the Leucadian Leap if they are deemed unfavorable.

Saffo sings for Apollo to save those tossed over the side, but when she succeeds Alcandro, a high priest, Saffo is shamed. He seeks revenge by setting up the marriage of his daughter Climene, with Saffo’s love, Faone. Our “hero” becomes jealous and throws herself off the cliff that she protested in the beginning and Apollo does not catch her.

This tragic story was staged to premiere in Naples on November 29, 1840, and went on to the Théâtre-Italien two years later. Then it premiered in London at the Theatre Royal and eventually New York in 1847. It was staged again at the San Carlo in 1967 and Leyla Gencer, a talented soprano from Turkey, played the title role.


4. Zelmira

The second Rossini work on our list today has a libretto written by Andrea Leone Tottola who took the idea from de Belloy’s Zelmire. This opera would be the last opera Rossini would premiere at the Teatro di San Carlo. A prominent critic of the time simply known as Stendhal remarked on the heavy German aspect of this opera. He compared Rossini to Beethoven calling the Italian more “German.”

It premiered on February 16, 1822, and it was a success. From Naples, it moved to Vienna that same year where it was also received with high acclaim. The latter was part of the Rossini Festival in Vienna that lasted for three months. It is said the Rossini composed some new music just for this festival.

It made its way through Italy and then premiered in London on January 24, 1824. The composer conducted this performance himself while his wife, Isabella Colbran, sang in the title role. It also premiered in Paris in the 1800s and eventually in New Orleans a decade later.


The Teatro di San Carlo is well known for its neoclassical architectural style.

This is how the Teatro Di San Carlo’s facade looks like today.


5. L’Olimpiade

Josef Mysliveček, of Czech descent, is another composer who had several works premiere at the Teatro di San Carlo in Naples. Metastasio, a master poet from Italy, wrote the libretto for L’Olimpiade. It opened on November 4, 1778, to celebrate King Charles III of Spain’s name day. It is said that this attempt to put Metastasio’s word to music is the best it has ever been done. It is also said that no one sang the aria “Se cerca, se dice” as well as the voice Metastasio wrote for, singer Luigi Marchesi.

This opera has been reproduced in Prague at the Estates Teatre, in Luxembourg at the Grand Théâtre, and at the Grand Théâtre in Dijon, France. There is also a film about the Prague staging, released in 2015, and went on to win a Trilobit Beroun Award.


6. Roberto Devereux

Donizetti wrote this next tragic opera to premiere at the Teatro di San Carlo, which happened on October 29, 1837. It was another huge success, also making its way to opera houses across Europe. It even made over the pond and was staged in New York on January 15, 1849.

The Teatro di San Carlo also started a wave of 20th-century productions that would become popular in 1964 with Leyla Gencer singing the lead. Roberto Devereux was then staged by the New York City Opera in 1970 with a cast that included Placido Domingo and Beverly Sills. It saw a flood of productions in Europe throughout the 1980s, and it was once again staged in the United States in 1991 by the Opera Orchestra of New York as a concert.

Other performances of this opera include the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in 2002, the Bavarian State Opera in 2005, the Dallas Opera in 2009, and the Opera Holland Park Festival that same year. In 2010 there were stagings in Rome and Minnesota, and in 2013 the UK company Opera Seria gave a concert of songs.

The most recent productions of Roberto Devereux were the 2015 staging at the Teatro Real de Madrid and the 2016 show at the Teatro Carlo Felice of Genoa.


The Teatro di San Carlo is undoubtedly a beautiful theater that marked important historical happenings for the genre of opera. For more unique theaters and opera houses out there, check out these 4 interesting theaters around the world.

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