If I had arrived several weeks earlier, I might have seen “La Traviata” or perhaps “Simon Boccanegra,” but I was only to be in Venice for a few days, and there was no opera scheduled at Teatro La Fenice. I was happy to settle for a Diego Matheuz conducting Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony—just to spend an evening listening to music in one of Europe’s most extraordinary concert halls. Unfortunately, Matheuz did not perform because there was a general strike on Friday. I did, however, manage to attend a Saturday night performance of a contemporary work. More on that later.
Why did I care about this particular theater? The history, mostly. And the way it looks on the inside. Just being there, even if there isn’t the same there that was there before. This is the opera house where Verdi’s “La Traviata” made its debut. Same for “Simon Boccanegra,” where Maria Callas became a star. It is, or was, a remarkable place in the history of music. Why the dancing verbs? Because the place has a history that’s as crazy as any opera plot. Originally built as the San Benedetto Theatre in the 1730s, it burned down in 1774, and was rebuilt as Teatro La Fenice (“Fenice” translates as “phoenix”) to begin anew in 1792. Immediately, there was squabbles, the theater survived and by early 1800s, it was a world-class venue, mounting operas by Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti, the big names in Italy at that time. In 1836, it burned down again, and was quickly rebuilt a year or so later. That’s when Verdi started writing operas for La Fenice, including “Rigoletto” and “La Traviata,” which debuted there. So began a century and a half of magic—until 1996, when two electricians burned it to the ground. Remarkably, engineers had measured the theater’s acoustics only two months before, so the theater was rebuilt sounding much the same as its predecessor.
That’s the theater that I visited, the 1,000 seat theater that hosted the premiere of “La grande guerra (vista con gli occhi di un bambino)” – a tale for men’s chorus, soprano, narrator and instruments with music by Claudio Ambrosini, featuring Sonia Visentin (soprano), Sandro Cappelletto (narrator), Matteo Liva (piano), Alberto Perenzin (trumpet), Giulio Somma (percussion), Coenobium Vocale (Maria Dal Bianco, choirmaster ). The title translates as: “The Great War (as seen through the eyes of a child”). The instrumentation was carefully chosen: the soprano Visentin represents the voices of the mothers and sisters and aunts who bore unceasing sorrow as they lived their short lives. The child, who wrote the World War I diaries, is manifest in the percussion work of a twelve-year-old musician who masterfully handled the xylophone, tympani and other instruments. The men’s choir—rather flawless in their relentless soldiering on through the era’s music—represent the soldiers. Capalletto’s narration tied everything together in the words of the child. So painful, so affecting. So frustrating—I wanted to understand every word, but I could only understand some of what was being said and sung.
It was a beautiful performance in a beautiful place. But it was not my only engagement for the evening. Fearful of seeing no music in Venice, I also booked a seat at the tourist-oriented Musica a Palazzo, just a few dark alleyways, a campo (plaza), and several bridges away from the opera house. I raced over in the dark to catch the final act of an intimate staging of the story in an old mansion–the last Barbaggio family member died in 1804). Each act is staged in a different room of the mansion. I arrived in time for Violetta to die in her bedroom, the men in her life beside her, three performers singing their hearts out for perhaps a hundred people with the accompaniment of a quartet (violin, viola, cello, piano). The intimacy of the performance, and the the familiar strangeness of the setting in the old mansion, turns out to be a delightful for a tourist to spend an evening in Venice—but you must be willing to buy into the schtick. The audience seemed to delight in doing just that.
The contrast was fun to contemplate. On the one hand, a classic old opera house rebuilt from its own ashes less than twenty years ago presenting material from World War I in a 21st century setting. On the other, an old mansion dating back two centuries— Ca’Barbagio presenting an opera that debuted at La Fenice in 1853 for 21st century tourists visiting an old city of just 50,000 permanent residents whose long decline probably began more than 500 years ago. Today, the city exists mostly for its history and tourism—more than 20 million people visit Venice every year. I was lucky enough to spend my time at La Fenice sitting next to a local woman, Mirella, whose love for La Fenice has less to do with classic old operas and more to do with the many contemporary works, like those by Ambrosini, for this is, after all, her neighborhood music house.