Venice, Italy - We splurged! We got prime second-row seats to see Rossini's opera, The Barber of Seville, at the celebrated Venetian theater.
La Fenice is an icon. Over the years, it has hosted countless world-famous operas, including premiers by Verdi and major productions by Rossini. Its five-tiered interior glitters with gold; its ceiling is festooned with frescoes; and it is lauded for its impeccable acoustics.
La Fenice is so iconic, that two of the books I have read in Venice are centered on events that take place at the theater. One is Death at La Fenice - that's right, another one of Donna Leon's murder mysteries, in which the compassionate Commissario Brunetti resolves the murder of a celebrity conductor. The second is John Berendt's account of the many characters and calamities that haunt Venice. The City of Falling Angels commences on the day in 1996 that La Fenice was consumed by flames.
Venetians were devastated when their beloved opera house burned to the ground. The prosecution launched a far-flung investigation, charging city officials with negligence and investigating arson plots that imputed the Mafia. In the end, two lowly electricians took the rap for the whole affair. Apparently, they faced financial penalties because they were behind schedule on their work; they started the fire to cover up their own tardiness.
This conclusion, which was finally reached five years after the fire, did not actually satisfy skeptical Venetians; but this is the story that stuck.
As for the theater, the mayor of Venice immediately announced his decision that La Fenice should be rebuilt exactly as it had been - not a contemporary re-interpretation but a replica of the neoclassical jewel. Com'era, dov'era. "As it was, where it was," became the Venetian rallying cry.
The reconstruction was plagued by lawsuits, delays, over-spending and in-fighting. The original millennial deadline came and went and the theater was little more than a hole in the ground. The following year, a new mayor sacked the contractor and started from scratch with a local company, which worked 16 hours a day to meet a new deadline.
Finally, eight years and 90 million Euros later, the new Fenice was ready for action. (In Venice, the cost and time overrun were scandalous; but by Boston standards, this public works project appears to be the model of efficiency.) In 2004, the theater re-opened amidst great fanfare with a performance of La Traviata, the opera by Verdi that originally premiered here in 1853.
Meanwhile, the accomplice to the arson, Massimiliano Marchetti was sentenced to six years in prison, which he began serving in 2003. The primary culprit, Enrico Carelli, fled Venice while awaiting the court's decision on his appeal. He was on the lamb for four years before he was tracked down in Mexico. Apparently, police were able to trace a call that he made to his mother, to the great delight of the press, which labeled him "Mamma's boy". Carelli's extradition in 2007 finally ended the sad saga of the Fenice fire.
As I basked in the glow of the glittering chandelier, I admired the amazing artistry all around me. The lights dimmed, the curtain parted and Rossini's colorful characters took the stage. They spat out their tongue-twister lyrics at an incredible rate, but still clearly enough that I could understand. (The surtitles helped too, though the music moved so fast that it was challenging to read along!) Bravo, bravissimo, bravo, bravissimo...
La Fenice, appropriately, means "the phoenix". It earned that moniker after the original theater on this spot, the San Benedetto, burned to the ground and was rebuilt in 1792. That this history would repeat itself in the 19th century and again in the 20th century seems more than a little strange - as if the place is cursed by its title. Then again, it must be reassuring for Venetians to know that this cultural icon will always endure, as has by now been proven.