History and Architecture
The Teatro San Carlo (main Opera House of Naples and all of South Italy) derived its name from King Charles of Bourbon. Charles intended to make a great European capital out of Naples. Thus, he ordered, together with royal palaces and villas, the construction of a great theater. The new opera house replaced de facto the Teatro San Bartolomeo, which had been the main opera house until then. The Teatro San Bartolomeo was converted into a church shortly after the San Carlo opened.
Today the San Carlo is the oldest opera house still functioning in Europe. It was built in just seven months, from March to October 1737. It was inaugurated on November 4, 1737, the day of Saint Charles, with an opera written for the occasion by composer Domenico Natale Sarri (or Sarro, as some documents attest).
The project of the theater was awarded to Giovanni Antonio Medrano, who studied engineering in Spain and returned to Naples together with Charles, who would soon be crowded king of Naples and Sicily and later king of Spain. Medrano was aided by Angelo Carasale, who was the former director of the San Bartolomeo Theater.
The San Carlo was built adjacent to the royal palace of Naples so that the king could go to the theater without going out to the open. The grandeur of the theater was evident: there were 184 boxes divided in six tiers, in addition to the stalls, the gallery, and a royal box. The stage of the theater was particularly large, for those times, and would later allow wonderful ballet performances. The boxes were all provided with a mirror to check what the royals were thinking of the opera. In those times, there was a precise order to follow when to applaud or to ask for an encore during a performance. It was not advisable to give feedback about a performance before the king, the queen, and a list of princes. This is why mirrors were very welcome. This etiquette did not apply to the gallery, where audience was free to voice its opinion.
The San Carlo theater immediately drew the attention of all European theatergoers. At the time, it was not only the largest, but also the most active opera house in Europe. In 1752, La Clemenza di Tito by Gluck premiered in the Neapolitan opera house. The years 1761 and 1762 witnessed the premieres of two operas by Johann Christian Bach. Later, the theater was visited by such composers as Georg Friedrich Händel, Franz Joseph Haydn, and young Mozart, who was interested in Neapolitan composers, especially in Domenico Cimarosa, one of the central figures of comic opera in the 18th century (opera buffa in Italian).
The night of February 13, 1816, during a dress rehearsal for a ballet, the interior of the opera house was completely destroyed. However, the reconstruction only took 10 months. The project was awarded by King Ferdinand IV (son of King Charles) to Antonio Niccolini, an architect from Tuscany. The renovated theater was inaugurated on January 12, 1817. Famous author Stendhal was present at the second performance of the inaugural opera, Il Sogno di Partenope (Partenope’s Dream). In a letter, he stated that there was still nothing, in Europe, even remotely comparable with the San Carlo Opera house.
Shortly before the fire of 1816, great composer Rossini had been appointed artistic director, and house composer, of all the opera houses of the Bourbon family. This idyll terminated in 1822, when Rossini left Naples to marry Isabella Colbran, a singer who had been a lover of the theater’s manager, Domenico Barbaja. After this abandon, Barbaja hired another incredible composer: Gaetano Donizetti from Bergamo. Donizetti was the artistic director from 1822 to 1838. In this period, he wrote and premiered in Naples the Lucia di Lammermoor (loosely based on the story by Sir Walter Scott’s The Bride of Lammermoor).
The opera house of Naples lost some prestige after the unification of Italy, when most Italian premieres started to take place at the Teatro Alla Scala in Milan. The San Carlo even closed down for one year (in 1874) because of poor revenues. It took years for the theater to regain its importance. Some of its prestige was regained thanks to the support shown by composers such as Giacomo Puccini and Ruggero Leoncavallo (who was himself born in Naples).
During World War II, the opera house was bombed and had to be repaired again. However, the original interior was restored perfectly. The last renovation occurred in 2008, when architect Elisabetta Fabbri coordinated a five months’ restoration. A new lobby was built, below the theater’s main hall. The original decorations were restored, and the splendor of the theater was apparent again.
Ballet in Naples
In the beginning, ballet was considered a type of art that was secondary to opera. Dancers were allowed onstage only during intermissions. Ballets were limited in scope: the dance should, at that time, summarize and mimic the plot of the opera being represented.
However, in 1812, the dance movement became more structured with the birth of the San Carlo ballet school, the oldest dance school in Italy. From then on, ballet was more and more considered a “noble” and independent form of art in Italian theaters. The San Carlo dance company has been particularly active after World War II. The most renowned dancers performed at the San Carlo. Particularly involved in the life of the theater was ballet dancer Carla Fracci, who directed the dance company of the theater in the late 1980s.
How to reach the Opera House in Naples
The theater touches the north side or the Palazzo Reale of Naples (the Royal Palace). It faces Piazza Trento e Trieste, very close to Piazza Plebiscito, the main square of the city. Therefore, the theater can be reached very easily with any means of transportation.
The easiest way to get there is by subway. From the Central Station of Piazza Garibaldi (Garibaldi Square), you can hop on line 2 in the direction of Pozzuoli, stop at Montesanto, and walk a few minutes to the wonderful opera house.