The Theatre - The History | Teatro La Fenice


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The Teatro La Fenice was founded in 1792. In the nineteenth century, the theatre staged the world premieres of numerous operas, including Rossini’s Tancredi, Sigismondo and Semiramide, Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi (The Capulets and the Montagues) and Beatrice di Tenda, Donizetti’s Belisario (Belisarius)Pia de’ Tolomei, and Maria de Rudenz, and Verdi’s ErnaniAttila, RigolettoLa traviata and Simon Boccanegra


In the last century, the Fenice has also placed a special emphasis on contemporary productions, welcoming the world premieres of Stravinski’s The Rake’s Progress, Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, Prokofiev’s L’angelo di fuoco (The Fiery Angel), Nono’s Intolleranza (Intolerance) and Maderna’s Hyperion. Recent premieres have included Kagel’s Entführung im Konzertsaal (Kidnapping in the Concert Hall), Guarnieri’s Medea, Mosca’s Signor Goldoni and Ambrosini’s Il killer di parole (The Killer of Words)

With a seating capacity for over one thousand people, the Fenice boasts excellent acoustics (which were improved when the theatre was rebuilt after the devastating fire of 1996), a 98-member orchestra and 66-person opera chorus, a dedicated local audience and a large international following. The theatre is a leading creative venue, staging more than one hundred opera performances per year, a major symphonic season conducted by prominent conductors from across the globe (including frequent collaborations with Myung-Whun Chung, Riccardo Chailly, Jeffrey Tate, Vladimir Temirkanov and Dmitrij Kitajenko), the full cycles of symphonies by Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms and Mahler, a contemporary repertoire focused especially on Venetian artists such as Nono and Maderna, ballets, and chamber music concerts.

The theatre is owned by the Municipality of Venice and managed by the Fondazione Teatro La Fenice, a private body whose members include the State of Italy, the Veneto region, the Municipality of Venice and numerous public and private institutions. The foundation also runs a second theatre, the Teatro Malibran (formerly known as the Teatro di San Giovanni Grisostomo), which dates back to 1678.

Superintendent and Artistic Director is Fortunato Ortombina and Chorus Master Claudio Marino Moretti.

In keeping with the theatre’s storied history, the Fondazione Teatro La Fenice is proud to stage the most important works of the Italian and international operatic repertoire, including pieces by French, Slavic, British and German composers. (Venice has enjoyed a long-standing, deep-rooted relationship with both Britten and Wagner.) The Foundation also hosts cutting-edge experimental directors while continuing to offer first-rate musical experiences. Furthermore, it conducts ongoing research into contemporary music, commissioning new works and staging Italian and Venetian premieres, and, in collaboration with Italian and international experts, is especially interested in producing Baroque works, particularly those from the Venetian repertoire.


In recent seasons, the Foundation has also endeavored to meet another of the goals set out in its statutes by developing new artistic frameworks and promoting emerging young artists. To this end, the Fenice has hired emerging young professionals (including conductors, directors, set designers and singers) to stage avant-garde productions, commissioned young composers to write symphonies and chamber pieces. Furthermore, the Fenice collaborates with leading Venetian educational institutions (including the Conservatory, University and Academy of Fine Arts) and involves students in designing, producing and staging performances, particularly as part of the recently founded Atelier della Fenice at Teatro Malibran.


Grandi Prime - Great names at La Fenice

La Fenice theatre, built by a company of upper-tier block holders, ex-proprietors of the San Benedetto Theatre, appeared right from the start as the official theatre of the Venetian aristocracy: this status also reflected itself in its elegant architectonic decorative appearance. Inaugurated in 1792 with the musical drama “I Guochi d’Agrigento” by the famous Giovanni Paisiello on the libretto by Alessandro Pepoli and the ballet “Amore e Psiche” by Onorato Viganò, set to music by Giulio Viganè, the new theatre immediately took on a position of absolute prominence in the lagoon city, reserving for itself the most prestigious music of the time, the serious opera.

It was the task of the San Benedetto and even more so of the other minor theatres to stage comic opera. In any case, all Venetian theatres were held to respect a well cadenced annual calendar: performances were divided into three seasons Autumn, (from October to mid December) carnival time (from 26th December to February-March) and Spring (April-may). The years immediately following the inauguration were not as memorable as the company of proprietors would have hoped, despite the frequent staging of opera intentionally commissioned to famous composers like Giovanni Simone Mayr (“Saffo”, 1794) and Domenico Cimarosa (“Gli Orazi e i Curiazi”, 1797, which remained in the repertoire for over half a century: Artemisia 1801 was performed posthumously, immediately after the sudden death of the musician in the lagoon city in the first few days of the same year). Of the many other total novelties in the first twenty years of activity of the theatre, what is signalled above all are the greatest voices of the time: Giacomo David, Luigi Marchesi, Angelica Catalani, Gasparo Pacchiarotti, Brigida Banti,Empress Sissy, Giuseppa Grassini, celebrated for his flirts, including one with Napoleon. The success of Rossini, thanks to the farces given to the San Moise theatre between 1810 and 1813, decided the commission of “Tancredi”, performed in February 1813, which signalled an overwhelming success for the not yet twenty one year old Pesaro composer. And if Venice did not welcome “Sigismondo” performed at La Fenice with particular enthusiasm, in 1814, a true triumph was attributed to “Semiramide”, third novelty offered to La Fenice in 1823, when Rossini was by then considered the most celebrated opera composer of his time. One year later, La Fenice again consecrates a new European talent with “Il crociato in Egitto” by Giacomo Meyerbeer, at his last and decisive Italian opera before his departure for Paris, where the Berlin composer was to become the new master of the theatrical world. In the following three five year periods there will be numerous first performances. The first evening of the carnival, the 26th December, Feast of St Stephen, was awaited with trepidation by the most brilliant people of Venice: very often however a playful highly critical will prevailed in the public, so performances held on these evenings flopped, to then meet with greater enthusiasm on subsequent evenings. The Venetian theatre not only hosted minor novelties of Pacini, Mercadante, Nicolini, Paer, Pavesi, Generali, but also two of the ten operas of Vincenzo Bellini (“I Capuleti e i Montecchi”, 1830 and “Beatrice di Tenda”, 1833). A little later “Belisario” by Gaetano Donizetti thrilled the Venetian audience in 1836, while the first performance of “Maria di Rudenz”, always by the same author, performed during the re-opening season of the theatre in 1838, after the terrible fire of a few months earlier, was a great flop.

Prestigious voices followed each other uninterruptedly on the stage of the Venetian theatre, and included Isabella Colbran (Rossini’s wife), Carolina Ungher, Giuseppina Strepponi (Verdi’s companion), Erminia Frezzolini, Domenico Donzelli, Giorgio Ronconi, Raffaele Mirate, as well as the three prima donnas best loved by the public: Giuditta Grisi, Giuditta Pasta and above all Maria Malibran, who in 1834-35 interpreted the roles of Norma, Rosina, Desdemona and Cinderella at La Fenice. She would travel to the theatre each evening in a grey gondola with gold and scarlet interiors (traditional black seemed to gloomy to her), driven by a gondolier dressed in a unique gaudy coloured costume, designed by her. Mourned by the entire musical world, the very dynamic Malibran died at the tender age of 28 years of age in 1836. In her honour the glorious Theatre Of San Giovani Grisostomo was re-named “Malibran”: this name is still kept to this day by the large building, which then declined to cinema and in these last few months has become the second home of La Fenice (it re-opened in May 2001). Since the mid 19th century La Fenice Theatre has hosted intense productions and is prestigious second only to La Scala in Milan. In fact, both theatres boast a particularly relevant connection with Giuseppe Verdi, who destined five (La Fenice) and ten (La Scala) operas to them respectively. The spectacular premier of “Nabucco”, performed for the first time at La Scala in 1842, was performed the same year in the Venetian theatre after it had been performed repeatedly for twenty-five consecutive nights: the result was such to convince the chairman of the theatre, Count Mocenigo, to immediately commission a new opera to the young composer from Emilia. Fifth Verdi title and the first to be performed in a theatre other than La Scala, “Ernani” triumphed at La Fenice in 1844 thanks also to the overall ability of the cast (Carlo Guasco, Sofia Loewe, Antonio Selva) and opened a triumphant series that included “Attila” (1846), “Rigoletto” (1851), “Traviata” (1853: a fiasco perhaps not as pronounced as the declarations lead to believe of the musician) and “Simon Boccanegra” (1857) which was however welcomed only by an esteemed success. The second half of the 19th century did not succeed in equalling the success of the first. Following the end of Austrian domination and by then part of the Kingdom of Italy, Venice was an impoverished city, provincialized, unable to keep up with the larger centres of Italian musical theatre, namely Milan, Rome and also Turin. Richard Wagner, though resident in the city between 1882-1883 the year of his death, appeared to have no great love for the musical tastes of the citizens, nor for La Fenice, where it seems he never set foot. It should not be forgotten however that La Fenice staged the first Italian performance of Rienzi (18749 and “L’Anello del Nibelungo”, (1883), the latter in opera form by the Wagner travelling company conducted by Angelo Neurmann. The first of great prominence of the closing years of the century is that of La boheme by Ruggero Leoncavallo (1897), which did not enjoy the same success as the same named opera by Puccini, performed at Turin the previous year.

The stage of the Venetian theatre continues to be full of prominent singers, where after Felice Varesi and Fanny Salvini-Donatelli, first Violetta, Marianna Barbieri-Nini, Francesco Tamagno, Gemma Bellincioni, Rosina Storchio, the Venetian Carlo Galeffi, Hariclea Darcele and - in the 19th century – Mariano Stablile, Conchita Supervia, Aureliano Pertile, Toti Dal Monte, Gilda Dalla Rizza, Gina Cigna, Mafalda Favero, Tito Schipa sang. In the post second world war period Venice got back its role of great centre of international tourism and then also of prestigious world stage. In particular, La Fenice did not inactively witness the historical confrontation at La Scala between Maria Callas and Renata Tebaldi: their names, together with that of Giulietta Simionato, start to appear on the theatre playbills from 1949, when Callas tackled the “Capuleti” by Bellini, in the role of Elvira. Among the great actors and shows of the 1950s the following are worth mentioning: Boris Christoff and Nicola Rossi-Lemeni (Boris and Chovanscina), Sesto Bruscantini, Maria Caniglia (Tosca), Magda Oliviero (I quattro rusteghi), Franco Corelli (Fanciulla del West e Carmen), Alfredo Kraus (Traviata), Giacomo Lauri-Volpi (Trovatore). In 1960 Joan Sutherland played the eponymous role in Alcina, in 1961 Renata Scotto and Alfredo Kraus gave life to an unforgettable “Sonnambula”; Carlo Bergonzi was the protagonist in the same year of an excellent “Aida”, Fiorenza Cossotto, Gianni Raimondi, Ruggero Raimondi, Leyla Gencer, Teresa Berganza, Luciano Pavarotti all took to the La Fenice stage in the following decade and made many more appearances. The Donizettian interpretations of Monserrat Caballé (“Roberto Devereux”, 1975), Mirella Freni (“La figlia del reggimento”, 1975) and Katia Ricciarelli from Veneto (“Maria di Rudenz”, 1981), together with “Tancredi” and “Orlando” of Marilyn Horne and Lella Cuberli 1981 and 1984) also deserve a mention.

An artistic fact of absolute importance is the collaboration between La Fenice Theatre and the International Festival of Contemporary music of Venice, which has become one of the Biennial events since 1930. Through many difficulties the Biennial continues its events to this day, which are usually held during the second half of September, Immediately after the Cinema Festival. This union between institutions, has led to the accomplishment of a number of essential works in the history of the opera of the second half of the 20th century, including ”La carriera di un libertino” by Stravinskij (1951), “Il giro di vite” by Benjamin Britten (1954), “L’angelo di fuoco” by Sergej Prokof’ev (1955), “Intolleranza” by Venetian Luigi Nono (1960), “Hyperion” by Bruno Maderna (1964), “Le metamorfosi di Bonaventura” by Gian Francesco Malipiero (1966), “Lorenzaccio” by Sylvano Bussotti (1972) and “Prometeo” always by Nono (1984: for this production Renzo Piano designed a stage in the deconsecrated church of San Lorenzo). It should not be forgotten that La Fenice was also, in those and in the following years, a centre of propulsion in the production of those particular novelties, which are the “rediscoveries” of past texts from “The finta pazza” by Francesco Sacrati (1987) to “Crispino e la comare” by the Ricci brothers (1983, 1986) and “Maria di Rudenz” by Donizetti (1981, 1982).