Is this the final curtain for opera's tragedies?

July 6, 2001

Fires, wars, scandals and the Mafia have all contributed to the downfall of some of Europe's most famous opera houses. Adrian Mourby investigates

The words "opera house" and "scandal" get yoked together so frequently in newsprint that readers might be forgiven for thinking that these costly structures get built solely for the purpose of catching fire, falling down and provoking resignations by the chorus load.

In recent years we have grown used to scandals such as La Bastille, Paris's revolutionary new house that simply did not function when it opened in 1989; the Liceu in Barcelona that burned so spectacularly in 1994; London's Royal Opera House, that seems unable to keep a chief executive for more than six months; or the accursed Teatro Real in Madrid that earned itself the sobriquet of el maldito or " sfortunato " because of the ill-fortune that kept it closed to opera for more than 60 years. But if there were to be a sfortunatissimo prize for Europe's most accursed house, the shortlist would include La Fenice in Venice, the Royal Opera House, Valletta, and Il Massimo in Palermo.

Malta's 19th-century Royal Opera House in Valletta was built by the British in 1866 to a design by Edward Middleton Barry, who had just scored a considerable success at Covent Garden. As a building it was always ill-fated. Barry, very much in demand, never visited Malta to survey the site. Consequently he designed the house to be built on flat ground, whereas Piazza Vittoria sloped by a drastic 3.5m. Faced with disaster, Barry improvised, ordering a huge platform to level the ground. Inevitably, costs spiralled. Then, seven years after opening, the Royal burned down during a rehearsal and had to be rebuilt before, in April 1942, disaster struck again when a German bomb destroyed the front of the opera house and much of the auditorium.

Immediately after the war, a group of German prisoners of war offered to rebuild the house for free. But according to Richard England, visiting professor of architecture at the University of Malta: "The government turned that down for fear of upsetting the unions. With a chronic housing shortage there were not many votes to be found in opera houses in the postwar era."

A number of attempts were made, all unsuccessful, to get the German government to pay for rebuilding work. While La Scala, the Staatsoper, Vienna and even Dresden were rebuilt after much worse war damage, the Valletta opera house degenerated into an eyesore. All that remains today is Barry's improvised platform, which provides the roof for a few shops that have been burrowed into its foundations.

A very different story is to be found across the Mediterranean Sea in Sicily, where the Teatro Giuseppe Verdi, known locally as Il Massimo, was the scene of the assassination of Michael Corleone's daughter in The Godfather: Part III . Unfortunately, at the time Francis Ford Coppola was shooting his film, the Massimo itself had been closed for 15 years, so the film moved to a sound stage in Rome for its interiors. Closed for a few months in 1974 for electrical repairs, the theatre stayed dark until April 1998 when the local mayor, Leoluca Orlando, made it part of his election platform that the house would re-open.

Paolo Emilio Carapezza, professor of musicology at Palermo University, blames "megalomania, bureaucratic complications, administrative ineffectiveness and political corruption" for the delayed reopening. The assumption in Palermo was that it was the Sicilian Mafia that had the most to gain from the closure of Il Massimo as they controlled the administration of certain regional funds and were able to milk restoration contracts. The theatre's plight, like the systematic destruction of Palermo's street lighting, was seen as a symbol of Sicily's slide further into the grip of the Cosa Nostra.

The situation changed in November 1993 with the election of Orlando as mayor of Palermo, Carapezza says. Awarded extra powers as a result of legal changes, he ensured that the house was restored and reopened in 1998 "as an effective symbol of the renaissance of the town". But after 20 years of neglect, it had deteriorated so appallingly that all its frescoes, boxes and stage equipment needed replacing too. Three years later, most of this additional work is nearing completion.

Much further north, Venice has witnessed two operatic disasters in recent years. First, there was the disastrous high tide of 1987 that rendered La Fenice's second home, the art nouveau Teatro Malibran, unusable. Then one night in 1996, La Fenice was gutted during a fire started by two cousins, Enrico Carella and Massimiliano Marchetti, who were trying to avoid penalty payments on an electrical contract they had failed to complete on time. Homeless, the famous company retreated out of Venice and on to Isola Nuova del Tronchetto, a concrete island surrounded by rusty supertankers and multi-storey car parks. Palafenice was erected, a white tent surrounded by Portakabins, which has become La Fenice's long-term temporary home.

"The loss of La Fenice shocked the art world," says Paolo Pinamonti, its artistic director. Impreglio, a company owned by Fiat, got the contract to rebuild the opera house, but, six months into the reconstruction, the decision was contested by Holzmann-Romagnoli, a German/Italian company that claimed that Impreglio's quote had not included all the work that needed to be done. The case went to the Consiglio di Stato, the highest court in Italy, which reassigned the contract to Holzmann-Romagnoli. But rebuilding was further delayed because Impreglio had to be compensated for the work it had begun, and this did not occur until September 1999.

Since then, plans for a reopening have had to be put back again - the current date is in December, but Pinamonti believes the first performances in the rebuilt La Fenice will not take place until May or June 2002 when Tristan , the opera Wagner part-wrote in Venice, is scheduled.

These are only three examples of recent scandals in the opera world. In each case, expensive opera houses have not only been badly damaged, but their reconstruction has been hampered by politics, inefficiency and, in the case of Palermo, organised crime. So why are Europe's opera houses such a liability? England says the answer is obvious. "Scenery, stucco, seats and curtains were all highly inflammable. Add to those the wooden structure of the building and you have the perfect material for an inferno." Even the original Bayerische Staatsoper in Munich went up in flames, despite the fact that it had installed an early prototype of a sprinkler system. Unfortunately, January 1823 was very cold in Munich and the water tanks on top of the theatre had frozen.

In the 20th century, a lot of work was done to refurbish these houses and make them less vulnerable to fire but, nevertheless, six major houses were destroyed during the bombing raids of the second world war and no amount of fireproofing could prevent the Liceu and La Fenice burning down within the past ten years.

"Candles were dangerous," says England, "but since the installation of electricity it only takes one spark to set these old wooden structures alight. While no modern building is fireproof, our modern opera houses are unlikely to burn down."

Why it can take so long to rebuild those opera houses that do burn down is another matter. Where there is a lot of money to be spent, politicians and bureaucrats inevitably get involved - and so sometimes does organised crime. Altogether, we are fortunate to have as many of Europe's opera houses standing as we do.

TOP 20 OPERATIC DISASTERS

(Unless otherwise stated, the following houses were destroyed by fire)

Milan 1776, 1943 Montpellier 1785, 1881

Munich 1823, 1943 (war damage)

La Fenice , Venice 1837, 1996

Opera Comique , Paris 1838, 1887

Bolshoi , Moscow 1853, 1941 (war damage)

Reggio , Italy 1856

Liceu , Barcelona 1862, 1994

La Monnaie , Brussels 1865

Staatsoper , Dresden 1869, 1945 (war damage)

National Theatre , Prague 1881

Teatro Lyrico , Madrid 1909

Marseilles , 1919

Teatro Real , Madrid 1925 (shut as unsafe)

Staatsoper , Berlin 1941(war damage), 1945 (war damage)

Valletta , Malta 1873, 1942 (war damage)

Staatsoper , Vienna 1945 (war damage)

Geneva , 1951

Teatro Rossini , Pesaro 1966-80 (shut as unsafe)

Palermo , Sicily 1974-98 (shut as unsafe)

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