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Naples, Italy – San Carlo Opera House reopens

San Carlo Opera House reopens, following a two-year refurbishment, and the soul of Naples sings

A performance of La Clemenza di Tito on the 254th anniversary of Mozart’s birth marked the reopening of Naples’ San Carlo Opera House on 27 January, following a two-year refurbishment. Despite the city’s well-publicised wider problems, the imperative to restore San Carlo and rescue it from debt became a civic and government priority.

A highly charged relationship exists between the Italian public and their opera houses. Regarded as bastions of civic pride, they are also regularly beset by tempestuous forces, both on and off stage. The saga of La Fenice in Venice, destroyed by an arson attack in 1996, shows how murkily such waters can swirl, and how deeply wounded a city can be by the loss of a single emblematic building.

San Carlo has also been burnt to the ground, but that was in 1816 and it was swiftly rebuilt in 10 months, to designs by Antonio Niccolini, at the behest of Ferdinand IV, the Bourbon king. It now bears the distinction of being Italy’s oldest continually functioning opera house and ranks third in prestige behind La Scala in Milan and La Fenice, though most Neapolitans would hotly dispute that.

When it first opened in 1737, San Carlo was the largest opera house in the world seating over 3,500. In its wake, Naples rose to became the musical capital of Europe.

Enriched with a riot of gilding and frescoes, Niccolini’s rebuilt auditorium held around 1,400 patrons over five levels in a traditional horseshoe. The French writer Stendhal, who attended performances when Rossini was San Carlo’s in-house composer, noted breathlessly that ‘it dazzles the eyes, it enraptures the soul’.

More recently, however, the fortunes of San Carlo were much less dazzling, running up debts of 20 million euros that threatened its very survival. In 2007, government administrators were called in.

At the time, it was viewed as a metaphor for Naples’ crime and corruption-ridden decline. ‘This humiliation is symptomatic of a city in an advanced state of decomposition,’ Roberto De Simone, composer and former artistic director of the San Carlo, said. ‘It symbolises the collapse of Naples itself.’

Now San Carlo is reborn, with a grant from the Campania region picking up the 67 million euro tab. Renovation work was directed by Elisabetta Fabbri, who supervised the rebuilding of La Fenice and the Petruzzelli Theatre in Bari, also destroyed by arson.

Three hundred workers toiled day and night on the project, which was phased over two stages. The interior of the auditorium has been spruced up to its original gilded and stuccoed glory. A new stage, curtains and rehearsal rooms have been added. Air conditioning has also been installed. Without it the doors had to be left open from May onwards to repel the heat of the Neapolitan summer.

With its losses now cut, San Carlo could soon be handed back to the city authorities. And though an opera house clearly can’t assuage crushing social problems, there is a feeling that an essential part of Naples’ historic identity has finally been restored.

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