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The Theatre and its history

1737: The most ancient Opera House in the world comes to light

“Do you wish to know whether a spark of this devouring flame inspires you? then run, fly  to Naples and listen to the masterpieces of Leo, Durante Jommelli and Pergolesi”. (Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Dictionnaire de Musique)

The origins
Next to Plebiscito Square, one of the symbols of Naples, stands the shrine to Italian opera, whose foundation precedes  the Scala theatre in Milan  by 41 years and the Fenice theatre in Venice  by  55 years. It was in 1737 that the first king of Bourbon, Charles III became the promoter of a project that combined magnificence with amazement and became a clear sign of his power: a theatre! It was the architect Giovanni Antonio Medrano, the Spanish colonel brigadier stationed in Naples, who was responsible for the design. The work was contracted to Angelo Carasale who completed  the “real fabrica” in about eight months at a cost of  over 75.000 ducats, according to contemporary accounts. Medrano’s design was of a hall of 28.6 x 22.5 mt, with 184 boxes distributed in six tiers and a Royal box for ten people, for a total amount of 1379 seats.
The opening evening of November, 4th, the sovereign’s name day, was celebrated with the performance of Achilles in Sciro by Pietro Metastasio, with music  by Domenico Sarro and “two dances as an intermezzo” created by Francesco Aquilante and scenes by Pietro Righini. At that time, women used to play the main character of operas, so Achilles was interpreted by Vittoria Tesi, called “La Moretta”, with the primadonna soprano  Anna Peruzzi, called «la Parrucchierina» and the tenor Angelo Amorevoli.

The Artists, the Operas…
In the first four seasons, Carasale was the entrepreneur – impresario of the Theatre, the first “miracle – workers” to work at the behest of the king and his tastes, which showed a predilection for dance. This was followed by works from the glittering period of the eighteenth century Naples: the most popular composers were Leonardo Leo, Niccolò Porpora, Leonardo Vinci and of course Domenico Sarro. and furthermore, Johann Adolf Hasse “the Saxon” and Gaetano Latilla, Niccolò Jommelli, Baldassarre Galuppi, Niccolò Piccinni, Antonio Maria Gaspare Sacchini, Tommaso Traetta and Giacomo Tritto.
The wonderful voices of Vittoria Tesi, at San Carlo since the opening night, Angelo Amorevoli, Anna Lucia De Amicis, Celeste Coltellini. The XVIII century was also the era of the “castrati singers” (“evirati cantori”), dominated by the male diva Farinelli (Carlo Broschi), and Naples crowned as favourite of the San Carlo spectators il Caffarello (Gaetano Majorano), Porpora’s pupil and one of the most famous castrati of his time, next to Gizziello (Gioacchino Conti) e Gian Battista Velluti.
The XVIII century  saw also the arrival at San Carlo of Christoph Willibald Gluck, invited to Naples by the impresario Diego Tufarelli for his Clemenza di Tito  1752)  preceding Johann Christian Bach that brought to San Carlo  his operas Catone e Alessandro between 1761  and 1762.

The Neapolitan School
The four Conservatoires of the city represented  the creative lifeblood of Neapolitan School: Naples was at the cutting edge of the European musical world and provided lively artistic nourishment for the San Carlo. It was to draw the curiosity and attention of such composers as Händel, Haydn and the young Mozart, who in 1778 fell victim to the fascination of a Naples “which sings and enchants”, and even the first act of his Così Fan Tutte among the charming atmosphere of one of the city’s historical “coffee shops”.
At the height of this flourishing season, the incomparable masters of the Naples school were Domenico Cimarosa and Giovanni Paisiello. In 1787, Paisiello was also entrusted  with the task  of “overseeing the Orchestra of San Carlo” and proceeded to carry out a radical reform. During the same year, Ferdinand IV commissioned Paisiello to compose the “National Hymn of the Two Sicilies”.

San Carlo and the 1799 Neapolitan Revolution
1799 was a very important year for Naples. It was to prove a brief interlude, byut its cry was felt all over Europe: the few months  of Jacobin fervour in which men and women, even on the stage of the opera-house, renamed the “National Theatre of San Carlo”, became promoters  of the ideals of freedom, fraternity and equality. “A patriotic  hymn was sung in the National Theatre of San Carlo amidst the liveliest cheering for freedom” wrote Il Monitore  on 27 January, referring to the Hymn  composed by Cimarosa with the inflammatory lyrics by Luigi Rossi. The opera taht was staged was Nicaboro  in Yucatan by Tritto. A few months later le libertatian interlude would be bloodly suppressed  and the Bourbons returned to the throne. However, this did not prevent figures such as Eleonora Pimentel Fonseca, Luisa Sanfelice, Domenico Cirillo, Francesco Caracciolo, Melchiorre Delfico and Cimarosa himself from leaving an indelible and inescapable mark on the painstaking process of constructing Italian identity.

Welcome to the Nineteenth Century
“The first impression is that you have been transported to the palace of an oriental emperor. Your eyes are dazzled, your soul enraptured…” (Stehdhal, Rome, Naples et Florence, 1817)

The Barbaja Era
Naples stands out as a shining example among cities, with almost half a million inhabitants and a lively flow of visitors brought by the trend of the Grand Tour. This is the point at which the San Carlo undergoes a number of changes under the direction of the Royal House’s architect and set designer Antonio Niccolini, and the “temple” becomes the city’s symbol-monument. The work was supervised by Domenico Barbaja, who had worked s a waiter in a tavern, and who ” managed to fleece Milanese nobility to the extent he was able to rebuild the San Carlo Theatre by dominating gambling at La Scala in Milan in a single season and become its absolute lord“. 

The new San Carlo
On the night of February 13th 1816, a fire destroyed a large part San Carlo theatre in less than an hour. The only parts of  the building to survive the fire were the external masonry walls. The restoration was carried on in only nine months, was directed by Antonio Niccolini who re-made, in its main features, the 1812 Hall. The Tuscan architect, in fact, still keeps the horseshoe shape of the boxes and the proscenium configuration, just adding the wonderful clock with the low-relief of the “Time and the Hours” that we can still admire. The centre of the ceiling was decorated with a painting by Antonio, Giuseppe and Giovanni Cammarano, Apollo introducing the greatest poets in the world to Minerva. The artists were also responsible for the stage curtain, which was later replaced by the painting  Parnassus by Giuseppe Mancinelli and Salvatore Fergola (1854). The restoration of San Carlo Theatre was completed by the side facade made on drawings by the architects Francesco Gavaudan and Pietro Gesuè after  the demolition of Palazzo Vecchio between (1838 -1842). As official architect of the royal theatres, Niccolini will also coordinate the next works of maintenance and restoration. Among these activities we remember the modernization of 1844 made with his son Fausto and Francesco Maria Del Giudice. The foyer we can see nowadays, in the eastern wing of the Royal Palace, was buildt in 1937 upon a design of Michele Platanìa. It was completely destroyed in 1943 by a bomb and rebuilt immediately after the war. 

The San Carlo effect: a theatre of art
On the 4th October 1815 a 23-year old composer  – Gioachino Rossini – had his first work performed at San Carlo: Elisabetta Regina d’Inghilterra (Elizabeth, Queen of England) It featured an all-star cast: Isabella Colbran, Andrea Nozzari and Manuel García. “Furore!” wrote the musician the day after the première in Naples, overjoyed to be topping the billing at the “theatre of the greats”. After the lukewarm reception given to Armida and the success of Elisabetta, San Carlo stage saw other Rossinian operas like Mosè in Egitto (Moses in Egypt), Ricciardo, Zoraide and  Ermione, La Gazza Ladra, Zelmira. Gaetano Donizetti, instead, wrote 17 works for San Carlo stage; amongthese we remember Maria Stuarda, Roberto Devereux and the immortal Lucia di Lammermoor that made its debut at San Carlo  on 26th September 1835. Interpreers like Maria Malibran, Giuditta Pasta, Luigi Lablache, Giovanni Battista Rubini and the two famous French rivals Adolphe Mourrit and Gilbert Duprez, the “inventor” of  do di petto  the stylistic emblem of the romantic singing,make the golden age of San Carlo.

The unforgettable opening

The San Carlo effect still resounds, almost as if it were a magic formula after the Bourbons had regained the throne. Stendhal decribed the day of the opening of the opera house on 12th January 1817, less than a year after the theatre had been devastated by fire: There is nothing all over Europe that comes close to this theatre or even gives the faintest idea…Those who wish to be stoned need merely try to find a defect. As soon as you mention of Ferdinand, people will tell you: “He rebuilt San Carlo!”
The evening of the great reopening was marked by the staging of  Il sogno di Partenope (Parthenope’s dream) by Giovanni Simone Mayr, followed by a dance created by Salvatore Viganò. The myth of the romantic dancer was created by the Austrian dancer Fanny Essler , the “Swedish” Maria Taglioni mand the Neapolitan Fanny Cerrito, one of the first coreographers whose dancing shoes are religiously guarded in the Musée de l’Opéra in Paris.

Paganini and  Bellini
All the greatest artists have performed, at least once in their lifetime,  have performed on the San Carlo stage, such as Niccolò Paganini who in 1819 gave two concerts, (on 26th June and 7th July). This prestigious venue  was also  beloved by Vincenzo Bellini , who in 1826 made his debut with Bianca e Gernando, written especially for San Carlo. Legend has it that the young composer, still a student at the conservatoire in Naples, was forced  to abandon the reherasals at San Carlo “to sit an exam at the presence of the Royal commission”. The great Nicola Zingarelli, at the head of the prestigious institution, seeing Bellini declared: “I honestly believe it is excessive, if not pointless, to examine this young man who in a few months will have to be examined by judges who are much stricter than us: the San Carlo spectators who will see the opera he is composing Bianca e Gerlando.”

Mercadante and Verdi: the history of opera in a sort of musical duel
Saverio Mercadante deserves a special space in the golden season of the XIX century. For a while the musician from Altamura shared his slice of glory with Giuseppe Verdi who, in 1841, entered the history of San Carlo with the Neapolitan première of Oberto conte di San Bonifacio.  This was a particular period of successes for Mercadante who was involved in a sort of ideal music duel with the Busseto Swan. After his Alzira, Verdi had the debut of Ernani  in the 1846 season  that is in the same period of Mercadante’s Gli Orazi e i Curiazi . The next season, 1847/1848, focused on Nabucco and Attila, and after the revolutionry interlude, with I Lombardi alla prima Crociata, an absolute novelty for Naples. In the season 1849/1850 three new works were written for San Carlo: the first one was by Verdi, Luisa Miller, that had its debut on 8th December 1849, signing the end of Mercadante’s career at San Carlo. After its Rome première, in 1861/1862 season Un ballo in maschera –  originally titled Gustavo III  a work written for San Carlo and censored in 1858 – received a triumphant reception as Aida would have done in 1872, with a sublime performance of Teresa Stolz in the title role. The year after, Ricordi published a String Quartet –  Verdi’s only venture into chamber music – specially written for the “first soloists” of San Carlo Orchestra.

T like Twentieth century
The short century, during which Europe and the world  were torn apart for many decades by terrible conflicts, began at San Carlo with the Neapolitan première of Tosca (1900/1901). This was the period of Giuseppe Martucci, admired by Liszt and Anton Rubinstein and among the most significant composers of the XIX century. He was the conductor  who definitively introduced  the Wagnerian tradition at San Carlo, that begun with Lohengrin in 1881 followed by Tannhäuser (1889) and  Die Walküre (1895). He conducted also the Neapoltan première of Tristan und Isolde in 1907.
In the same year, Strauss came to Naples for the première of his Salome. The same great success at San Carlo was the one of operas by Puccini and by the “young school” of Mascagni and the “Neapolitans” Leoncavallo, Giordano, Cilea and Alfano.
This is the century in which the role of the conductor, patrly due to the way paved by Leopoldo Mugnone, takes on an increasingly decisive  and fundamental role in the success of the show. Composers like  Honneger, Debussy, Boito, Wolf-Ferrari, Zandonai and  Pizzetti contributed to the great repertoire of Italian melodrama, a typical feature of San Carlo, that continued to stage works even in wartime, with only a brief pause of few months. Covent Garden 1946, San Carlo was the first Italian theatre to have the courage to travel abroad after the war. Meanwhile at home in Italy, other historical premières were getting prepared: Ariane et Barbe-bleue by Dukas, From today to tomorrow by Schonberg, Carmina Burana and The Moon by Orff, The protagonist by Weill, all performed between 1950 and 1960.

Voices, soloists, conductors…
Some the many singers were  De Lucia and  Caruso, Di Stefano and Krauss, Del Monaco and Corelli, Tebaldi and Callas, Caniglia and Toti Dal Monte, Gigli and Tagliavini, Lauri Volpi and Schipa, Kabaivanska and Gencer, Freni and Caballè, Cossotto and Stignani, Cappuccilli, Bruson and Nucci, Blake and Ramey, Pavarotti, Domingo and Carreras.
Among the soloists Paganini, Sphor, Sarasade, Heiftez, Kreisler, Rostropovic, Benedetti Michelangeli, Pollini, Accardo and  Kremer, Ciccolini, Ughi and Maisky, Ashkenazy and Argerich, a moved Rubinstein, a very young Jacquline Du Pré. And more Casals, Arrau, Serkin, Tortelier, Richter, Kempff, Magaloff, Yo-Yo Ma.
It is impossible to mention all the musicians and great conductors that wrote the glorious history of San Carlo: from Toscanini and Stravinskij to Bernstein and Sawallisch, from Gui to Santini, from Fricsay to Scherchen, from Cluytens to Mitropoulos, from Muti to Abbado, from Busoni and Gavazzeni to Boulez, Sinopoli and Mehta, from Tate and Giulini to Celibidache and Karajan, from Furtwängler to Böhm who conducts the staging of Wozzeck by Alban Berg. It is 26th December 1949.

Dancers at San Carlo included Vassiliev and Maxinova, Rudolf Nureyev and  Alicia Alonso, Fracci and Savignano, Terabust and Ferri, Iancu, Derevianko and Bolle. Following the footsteps of the great mother of contemporary dance, Margot Fonteyn, the coreographers Roland Petit and Maurice Béjart, Pina Bausch and Karole Armitage, Trisha Brown, Twyla Tharp and Nacho Duato. In 1812 was founded the San Carlo Dancing School, the most ancient in Italy, that was  made great by artists like Pietro Hus, Salvatore Taglioni, Bianca Gallizia, Anna Razzi.

San Carlo and contemporary art
The happy meeting with contemporary art has brought San Carlo to gain several Abbiati Prizes, the Italian Academy Award for opera. Kiefer, Paladino, Pomodoro, Paolini, Kentridge and  Marden, represent the present of a tradition that stretches back to the 1940s with the contribution of the futurist Enrico Prampolini for Norma, till the drafts of  Domenico Purificato for Tosca (1917). And also drafts by Manzù, Adami and Hockney, Ontani, Rauschenberg and Picasso.

Directions, scenes and costumes…
The history of  San Carlo can boast a team of directors, set designers and costume designers like Frigerio and Squarciapino, Ljubimov and Borowski, Ronconi and Palli, Costa Gravas and  Aulenti, Martone, Vick and Herzog, Brockhaus, De Simone, Job and  Wertmuller, Faggioni, Pizzi, Zeffirelli, Ferretti, Pescucci and Tosi. The unforgettable  Visconti, Rossellini, Monicelli, Bolognini, Daminai, Ponnelle, Luzzati, Svoboda, De Filippo and Carmelo Bene. And  “our own” Nicoletti e Carosi, Rubertelli and Giustino. San Carlo hosted creations of undiscussed leaders of the fashion world, couturiers who followed the path signed by Coco Chanel in France like Roberto Capucci and Emanuel Ungaro

Upcoming shows

20 June 2024Maria Stuarda
Teatro San Carlo - NAPOLI 19:00
22 June 2024Matvienko / Kavakos
Teatro San Carlo - NAPOLI 19:00
23 June 2024Maria Stuarda
Teatro San Carlo - NAPOLI 17:00
See all upcoming shows