Teatro di San Carlo

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Exterior of San Carlo Opera House
Real Teatro di San Carlo
Interior view on to the royal box
View from the royal box

The Real Teatro di San Carlo (Royal Theatre of Saint Charles), its original name under the Bourbon monarchy but known today as simply the Teatro di San Carlo, is an opera house in Naples, Italy. It is located adjacent to the central Piazza del Plebiscito, and connected to the Royal Palace.

It is the oldest continuously active venue for public opera in Europe, opening in 1737, decades before both the Milan's La Scala and Venice's La Fenice theatres. [1]


The opera house was commissioned by the Bourbon King Charles VII of Naples (Carlo VII in Italian). Charles wanted to endow Naples with a new and larger theatre to replace the old, dilapidated, and too-small Teatro San Bartolomeo of 1621, which had served the city well, especially after Scarlatti had moved there in 1682 and had begun to create an important opera centre which existed well into the 1700s.[2]

Thus, the San Carlo was inaugurated on 4 November 1737, the king's name day, with the performance of the opera Domenico Sarro's Achille in Sciro, which was based on the play by the dramatist Metastasio. As was customary, the role of Achilles was played by a woman, Vittoria Tesi, called "Moretta"; the opera also featured soprano Anna Peruzzi, called "the Parrucchierina" and tenor Angelo Amorevoli. Sarro also conducted the orchestra in two ballets as intermezzi, created by Gaetano Grossatesta, with scenes designed by Pietro Righini.[1] The first seasons highlighted the royal preference for dance numbers, and featured among the performers famous castrati.

In the late 18th century, Christoph Willibald Gluck was called to Naples by the impresario Tufarelli to direct his Clemenza di Tito (1752) at the theatre, and Johann Christian Bach in 1761-62 brought two operas, Catone in Utica and Alessandro nell'Indie.


The new opera house was designed by Giovanni Antonio Medrano, a military architect, and Angelo Carasale, the former director of the San Bartolomeo. It was built at a cost of 75,000 ducats. The hall was 28.6 meters long and 22.5 meters wide, with 184 boxes, including those of proscenium, arranged in six orders, plus a royal box capable of accommodating ten people, for a total of 1,379 seats. Including standing room, the theatre could hold over 3,000 people. The fastidious composer and violinist Louis Spohr reviewed the size and acoustic properties of this opera house very thoroughly on 15 February 1817 and concluded that:

there is no better place for ballet and pantomime. Military movements of infantry and cavalry, battles, and storms at sea can be represented here without falling into the ludicrous. But for opera, itself, the house is too large. Although the singers, Signora Isabella Colbran [Prima Donna of the Teatro San Carlo opera company and Rossini's future wife] and the Signori Nozzari, Benedetti, etc., have very strong voices, only their highest and most stentorian tones could be heard. Any kind of tender utterance was lost.[3]

Much admired for its architecture, its gold decorations, and the sumptuous blue upholstery (blue and gold being the official colours of the Bourbons), the San Carlo was now the biggest opera house in the world. [4] In relation to the power of the existing Bourbon Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, Beauvert notes that the design of the house, with its 184 boxes lacking any curtains was so that "no one could the scrutiny by the sovereign" who had his private access from the Royal Palace.[4]


Outside view of the theatre around 1850
Interior prior to 1916

On 12 February 1816 the San Carlo was destroyed by fire. The outer walls remained intact. However, it was re-designed by the architect Antonio Niccolini and rebuilt within ten months on order of King Ferdinand IV, another Bourbon monarch and son of Charles III. Niccolini embellished in the inner of the bas-relief depicting "Time and the Hour". The central frescoed ceiling painting of Apollo presenting to Minerva the greatest poets of the world painted by Antonio, Giuseppe e Giovanni Cammarano.

On 12 January 1817, the rebuilt theatre was inaugurated with Johann Simon Mayr's Il sogno di Partenope. Stendhal attended the second night of the inauguration and wrote: "There is nothing in all Europe, I won’t say comparable to this theatre, but which gives the slightest idea of what it is like..., it dazzles the eyes, it enraptures the soul...". It was designed as a traditional horseshoe-shaped auditorium with 1,444 seats, and the proscenium is 33.5m wide and 30m high. The stage is 34.5m deep.

In 1844 there was a new redecoration under Niccolini his son Fausto and Francesco Maria dei Giudice. The main aspect of the new intervention has been the change of the theatre's interior appearance to the now-traditional red and gold.[1] Apart from the creation of the orchestra pit, suggested by Verdi in 1872, the installation of electricity in 1890, the subsequent abolition of the central chandelier, and the construction of the new foyer and a new wing for dressing rooms, the theatre underwent no substantial changes until the bombing of the Second World War in 1943. However, the theatre was quickly repaired by the occupying Allied forces, and it re-opened within six months on 16 December 1943.

The great age of Neapolitan opera[edit]

At the time, Neapolitan opera enjoyed great success all over Europe, not only in the field of opera buffa but also in that of opera seria. The Neapolitan school of opera composers included Feo, Porpora, Traetta, Piccinni, Vinci, Anfossi, Durante, Jommelli, Cimarosa, Paisiello, Zingarelli, and Gazzaniga. Naples became the capital of European music and even foreign composers considered the performance of their compositions at the San Carlo theatre as the goal of their career. These composers included Hasse (who later settled in Naples) Haydn, Johann Christian Bach and Gluck.

Similarly the most prominent singers performed and consolidated their fame at the San Carlo, such as Lucrezia Anguiari, called "La Cocchetta." Other prominent singers who performed at San Carlo included the renowned castrati Giovanni Manzuoli, Caffarelli (Gaetano Majorano), Farinelli (Carlo Broschi), Gizziello (Gioacchino Conti) and Gian Battista Velluti, the last castrato. Caffarelli, Farinelli, and Gizziello were products of the local conservatories of Naples

Composers in residence[edit]

From 1815 to 1822, Gioachino Rossini was house composer and artistic director of the royal opera houses, including the San Carlo, and he wrote ten operas during this time. These were Elisabetta, regina d'Inghilterra (1815), La gazzetta, Otello, ossia il Moro di Venezia (1816), Armida (1817), Mosè in Egitto, Ricciardo e Zoraide (1818), Ermione, Bianca e Falliero, Eduardo e Cristina, La donna del lago (1819), Maometto II (1820), and Zelmira (1822).

Regular singers of the period included Manuel Garcia and his daughter Maria Malibran, Clorinda Corradi, Giuditta Pasta, Isabella Colbran, Giovanni Battista Rubini, Domenico Donzelli and the two great French rivals Adolphe Nourrit and Gilbert Duprez—the inventor of the C from the chest.

After the composition of Zelmira, Rossini left Naples with Colbran who had previously been the lover of the theatre's impresario, Domenico Barbaia. The couple were married shortly thereafter.

To replace Rossini, Barbaja first signed up Giovanni Pacini and then another rising star of Italian opera, Gaetano Donizetti. As artistic director of the royal opera houses, Donizetti remained in Naples from 1822 until 1838, composing sixteen operas for the theatre, among which Maria Stuarda (1834), Roberto Devereux (1837), Poliuto (1838) and the famous Lucia di Lammermoor (1835), written for soprano Tacchinardi-Persiani and for tenor Duprez.

Vincenzo Bellini, Sicilian by birth, also staged his first work, Bianca e Fernando, at the San Carlo.

Giuseppe Verdi was also associated with the theatre. In 1841, his Oberto Conte di San Bonifacio was performed there and in 1845 he wrote his first opera for the theatre, Alzira; a second, Luisa Miller, followed in 1849. His third should have been Gustavo III, but the censor made such siginifcant changes that it was never performed in that version nor under that title (until a re-created version was given in 2004). It was later performed in Rome with significant revisions to the plot and its location, while the title became Un ballo in maschera.

Among the conductors and composers appointed by the Teatro San Carlo is the famous and eccentric French harpist and composer Nicolas-Charles Bochsa, who was accompanied by his lover, the English prima donna Anna Bishop, with whom he was touring the world. He conducted several operas (1844–1845) in the San Carlo with Anna Bishop as prima donna.[5] She sang there 327 times in 24 operas.

By the end of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth century, Giacomo Puccini and other composers of verismo operas, such as Pietro Mascagni, Leoncavallo, Giordano, and Cilea, staged their works there.


See also[edit]



  1. ^ a b c "The Theatre and its history" on the Teatro di San Carlo's official website. (In English). Retrieved 23 December 2013
  2. ^ Lynn 2005, p. 277
  3. ^ Spohr, p . 176
  4. ^ a b Beauvert 1985, p. 44
  5. ^ "Nicolas Bochsa: Harpiste, compositeur, escroc (French) on bochsa.site.voila.fr. Retrieved 23 December 2013


  • Allison, John (ed.) (2003), Great Opera Houses of the World, supplement to Opera Magazine, London
  • Beauvert, Thierry (1985), Opera Houses of the World, The Vendome Press, New York, 1995. ISBN 0-86565-978-8
  • Eisenbeiss, Philip (2013), Bel Canto Bully: The Life of the Legendary Opera Impresario Domenico Barbaja. London: Haus Publishing, 2013 ISBN 1908323256 ISBN 978-1-908323-25-5
  • Lynn, Karyl Charna (2005), Italian Opera Houses and Festivals, Lanham, MD: The Scarecrow Press, Inc. ISBN 0-8108-5359-0
  • Spohr, Louis, (trans./ed. Henry Pleasants, 1961), The Musical Journeys of Louis Spohr, Journey to Switzerland and Italy 1815-17. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press ISBN 0-8061-0492-9 ISBN 9780806104928
  • Zeitz, Karyl Lynn (1991), Opera: the Guide to Western Europe's Great Houses, Santa Fe, New Mexico: John Muir Publications. ISBN 0-945465-81-5

External links[edit]