29 January 2016

Fire at La Fenice

Oldest theatre in Venice keeps rising from the ashes

The sign welcoming visitors to Teatro La Fenice, Venice's famous opera house
The sign welcoming visitors to Teatro La Fenice,
Venice's famous opera house
La Fenice, the world famous opera house in Venice, was destroyed by fire on this day in 1996.

It was the third time a theatre had been burnt down in Venice and it took nearly eight years to rebuild.

The theatre had been named La Fenice, the Phoenix, when it was originally built in the 1790s, to reflect that it was helping an opera company rise from the ashes after its previous theatre had burnt down.

Disaster struck again in 1836 when La Fenice itself was destroyed by fire but it was quickly rebuilt and opened its doors again in 1837.

The American writer, Donna Leon, chose La Fenice to be the main location in her first novel featuring Commissario Guido Brunetti, published in 1992.

But in January 1996, approximately four years after Leon’s novel, Death At La Fenice,was published, the theatre burnt down again, making it front page news all over the world.

Arson was immediately suspected and in 2001 a court found two electricians guilty of setting the building on fire.

More on opera: Death of composer Giuseppe Verdi, 27 January, 1901

They were believed to have burnt it down because their company was facing heavy fines because of delays in the repair work they were carrying out. One of them disappeared after his final appeal was turned down, having been sentenced to seven years in prison. The other went on to serve a six-year prison sentence.

The fugitive electrician was arrested on the Mexico-Belize border in 2007 and extradited to Italy. After serving 16 months in prison he was released on day parole.

La Fenice was rebuilt in the same style as before at a cost of more than 90 million euros and it reopened with an orchestral concert in 2003.

The first opera performed in the rebuilt theatre was a production of Verdi’s La Traviata, staged in November 2004.

Travel tip:

Teatro La Fenice in Campo San Fantin is the oldest theatre in Venice. Its heyday was during the 19th century when the premieres of Rossini’s Tancredi and Semiramide and Verdi’s La Traviata were held there. During the Austrian occupation of Venice,  the audience threw red, white and green flowers on the stage to represent the Italian flag and shouted Viva Verdi. They weren’t just praising the composer, but using the letters of his last name as code for ‘Vittorio Emanuele Re d’Italia’.

Campiello Santa Maria Nova in Venice,
close to the home of author Donna Leon
Travel tip:

The writer Donna Leon, who lives in Venice, chose to put her character, Brunetti, on the opposite side of the Grand Canal from herself. She lives close to the church of Santa Maria dei Miracoli in Cannareggio while Brunetti’s apartment is supposed to be in Calle Tiepolo near the church of San Polo.

She often describes Brunetti leaving the Questura and jumping on to a police launch that would then head out into the lagoon. But in her novel, A Venetian Reckoning, published in 1996, Brunetti has to go home urgently. Instead of going down to Riva Schiavoni and taking the Vaporetto, he knows it will be quicker to cut through the back streets to Campo Santa Maria Formosa and Campo San Bartolomeo and cross the Grand Canal on a traghetto. Two old ladies are waiting to be rowed across but he waves his police badge at the gondolier and orders him to take him to the end of Calle Tiepolo.

Browse books by Donna Leon at amazon.co.uk


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