The Fire at La Fenice - a site dedicated to continuing coverage of the fire and its aftermath

The Fire at the Teatro La Fenice

The Teatro La Fenice, the leading opera house of Venice, one of the most beautiful in the world, and one of the most famous in the history of opera, was destroyed by a fire on the night of January 29, 1996. The fire, thought to have been started by an electrical short circuit, began about 8:30 in the evening and burned for nine hours. The building façade survived, but the interior was completely destroyed and the structure is in danger of collapse. Efforts to control the fire were hindered because the two canals nearest the theater had been drained for dredging, ironically, in order to facilitate access by Venice's emergency motor boats. The theater itself had been closed since August for renovation and was scheduled to reopen on March 1. The company was on tour in Warsaw at the time. The theatre's archives, including original libretti and letters by Verdi and others, are housed in another building and were not in danger. Estimates of the cost of restoration range from 100 billion to over 500 billion lire ($60 million to $300 million).

La Fenice (so named because it rose like a phoenix from the ashes of its predecessor, the Teatro San Benedetto, burnt down in 1773) was itself destroyed twice before by fire. Begun in 1790, it burned down before it had even been completed. Quickly rebuilt, it opened on 16 May 1792 with a performance of I Giuochi d'Agrigento by Giovanni Paisiello. It burned to the ground again in December 1836, and was again rapidly rebuilt, reopening on 26 December 1837. Architectural plans from that reconstruction are believed to survive. It was closed for renovation during 1854.

The theatre has been the cradle to many of the great operas (see below). It was the site of the infamous fiasco at the première of La Traviata, and of the great triumphs of Tancredi, Ernani, and Rigoletto that helped launch the careers of Rossini and Verdi.

La "Fenice" di Venezia, uno dei teatri lirici piu famosi del mondo, e statta quasi comletamente distrutta ieri notte da un incendio, di cui non si conosce ancora l'origine. Fino ad ora non risultano ne vittime ne feriti. L'allarme e stato dato poco dopo le 21 da una pattuglia della polizia di Stato che in motoscafo, passando accanto al teatro, si e accorta del fumo che usciva dall stabile. Sul posto sono accorsi immediatamente i vigili del fuoco ma la situazione e apparsa subito gravissima. Le flamme hanno continuato a levarsi sempre piu alte, tra boati e crolli, fino al cedimento del tetto del teatro, edificato nel Settecento. Davanti ad uno scenario apocalittico si sono susseguite scene de commozione, disperazione e panico tra le magliaia di veneziani accoris al "capezzale" del loro teatro, uno dei simboli principali della citta. Il rogo, che ricorda quello del Petruzzelli, ha costretto all'evacuazione delle case adiacenti e di un albergo, alla sospensione dell'erogazione del gas e della corrente elettrica, mentre le calli circostanti sono state transennate. Sopra il teatre continuo a volteggiare un elicottero dei pompieri gettando acqua mista a schiumogeno per circoscrivere l'incendio, che solo verso la mezzanotte ha cominciato ad essere controllato. L'edificio era chiuso dallo scorso agosto per alcuni lavori che avrebbero dovuto consentire la messa a norma di tutti gli impianti...

An Eyewitness Account

I was at home last night when I heard on the 10:30 TV news that La Fenice had been burning for two hours. I live too far from it to realize what was happening in that part of the city. What I did first was to go upstairs, on the terrace on the roof, to try to see something. I was not prepared for what I saw. I could clearly see the black shape of the building, and the flames high in the sky. I left immediately, and walked towards the San Marco area together with many other people who had left their houses.

From the Riva degli Schiavoni I couldn't see the flames anymore, but behind the San Marco bell tower the sky was red, while a huge cloud of smoke and sparks rose up. A helicopter was dumping water taken from the lagoon on the building. I tried to approach the area from the Piscina di Frezzeria, a road which goes directly in front of the theatre. Naturally the whole area was closed. All that part of the town was dark. Since there was no way to see what was happening from there, I went to the Campo di Santa Maria Zobenigo, from where one can see the left side of the building and the backstage. There were hundreds of people there.

La Fenice is in the very heart of the city, with no squares or large streets in front of it, just a small Campo. All the buildings around it had been evacuated, and the firemen were working to prevent the fire from spreading to them. When I reached the Campo the fire looked smaller than before; we saw only the huge cloud of smoke. Around midnight, however, flames began to appear through the roof of the backstage and the semi-circular window in the rear wall of the building. In a few minutes the whole upper part of the building was engulfed in flames. At 00:50 the roof collapsed. I remained there until 1:30. I could do nothing else but return home.

This morning firemen were still at work. The area is still closed, so that it is impossible to see the building from close up. The ground is covered with ashes. The external walls and the neoclassical facade remain, but the interiors are entirely lost. No doubt it was the most beautiful opera house in the world, and I felt home there. Nobody knows what will happen. I will never forget the golden, pink and pale green decorations, the painted curtain and the green and golden velvet of the main curtain, the pink marble in the foyer, the stairs, the beautiful all-white neoclassical upper foyer. That was the theatre where Tancredi, Semiramide, I Capuleti e i Montecchi, Ernani, Attila, Rigoletto, La Traviata, The Rake's Progress, and The Turn of the Screw had had their premieres. Isabella Colbran, Giuditta Pasta, Maria Malibran, Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland, Marilyn Horne gave performances there which belong to the history of singing. I don't know what else to say other than, well, that building was not a human being, but I feel like someone died, and I had witnessed his death agony.

Riccardo Domenichini Istituto Universitario di Architettura di Venezia Centro Interdipartimentale Archivio Progetti A.Masieri Venezia, Ex Cotonificio, Dorsoduro 2196

Operas Created at Teatro La Fenice

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Wednesday, 04-Jul-2012 13:52:48 PDT