San Carlo Theater in Naples has always had a reputation for sounding good. It was built back when the only rule for architects was, "Imitate the construction of halls that sound good." Not very scientific, but it worked. Thus, it was with some trepidation that concert-goers at San Carlo awaited the downbeat of Orff's Carmina Burana in April 1992 on the occasion of the reopening of the newly renovated theater. A collective sigh of relief went up (heard quite clearly even in the back row!): things sounded better than ever, according to Roberto de Simone, noted Neapolitan musicologist and composer. It is just one more chapter in the history of Naples' most famous theater.
Today, most people, if asked to name the opera house in Italy, say La Scala in Milan, but only because times have changed dramatically since the mid–1700s when Naples, in general, and San Carlo, in particular, were jewels in the crown of European culture. Naples was home to some of the great names in Western music, such as Alessandro Scarlatti and Giovanni Battista Pergolesi. The city was also the birthplace of the best-loved form of operatic entertainment in the 18th century, the Comic Opera.
San Carlo was built by the Bourbon king, Charles III, and takes its name from the fact that it opened on November 4, 1737, the feast day of the saint the king was named for. The king, of course, was present on opening night to see and hear Achille in Sciro, with music by the Neapolitan Domenico Sarro, who is now largely forgotten; the libretto was by Pietro Metastasio, the great court poet to the Emperor of Austria and to this day considered a giant among librettists.
The festive cantata which preceded the first opera at San Carlo sang the praises of the new theater: "Behold the new, sublime, spacious theater, vaster than that which Europe hath seen." A few years later, the English music historian Charles Burney said that San Carlo "as a spectacle surpasses all that poetry or romance have painted." The architects of the new theater were Angelo Carasale and Giovanni Antonio Medrano.
Among the best known Neapolitan composers of the 18th century were Pergolesi (1710-1736), Domenico Cimarosa (1749-1801) and Giovanni Paisiello (1740-1816), all masters of the comic opera, light-hearted fluff which featured lots of fat old lechers rolling their eyes while they laughed and chased virgins around the stage. The names of a few of the works let you know just what you're in for: The Servant Mistress, The Clandestine Marriage, The Enamoured Monk. Comic operas started out in the early 1700s as short interludes between the acts of serious works with Greek names, usually Achilles or Orpheus or one of their relatives, names that show just how seriously composers still took the Renaissance commitment to revive classical ideals. Much of this music, appropriately called opera seria, was as dull as cereal; so, enter the rollicking street farces that were to develop into comic opera. [A separate article on Monteverdi and the beginnings of opera is here.]
The Servant Mistress was the first full-scale comic opera and was first performed in 1731 at the San Bartolomeo Theater in Naples, the house that San Carlo replaced. It is still played today and is one of the very few Neapolitan comic operas still in the standard repertoire. Hundreds were written and almost none survive. They were done in by Romanticism. Fluff was fun, but by the late 18th century, it had given way to Revolution, Heroism, Love, Courage, Valor and Beethoven. Neapolitan comic operas, also, it is fair to say, suffer in comparison to the comic operas of Mozart. It is also fair to say, however, that most things suffer in comparison to Mozart.
Recently, Naples held a months-long revival of the music of Pergolesi, many of whose works have not been heard since they were first performed. Like many of his contemporaries, he was a very versatile composer; his best known composition, one which is still very much part of the standard orchestral repertoire today is a serious, sacred work: the Stabat Mater.
Another great composer of comic opera was Gioacchino Rossini (1792-1868). He was not Neapolitan, but is intimately connected with the musical history of the city, in that he took over the role of "house composer" in 1814. It was the beginning of the move away from Neapolitan composers, but one that kept San Carlo in the mainstream of European music at least for a while longer. Rossini, Vincenzo Bellini and Gaetano Donizetti, three of the great names in Italian opera in the first half of the 19th century, were all connected with the Naples conservatory and San Carlo. Bellini and Donizetti were the bridge to the new music of Romanticism, while Rossini was, somewhat anachronistically, the link to the comic operas of the past. For some reason, people forget that Rossini was the first European composer to break almost completely with the opera seria, works based on Greek mythology, and to start using themes of more immediate interest to Europeans, such as William Tell, Lady of the Lake, Tancredi, Elizabeth-Queen of England and many others, all dramatic themes. Far from being just a composer of comic opera, he was one of the founders of European Romanticism.
Rossini's The Barber of Seville, is arguably the best comic opera ever composed, Mozart notwithstanding. It was performed for the first time in Rome and not in Naples. That may have been a good thing, since there was already a very popular work of the same name by the Neapolitan, Paisiello, whose hooligan fans went to Rome for the opening of Rossini's work just to make rude noises. They say that even members of the cast(!) conspired to make the premiere flop. The conspiracy worked so well that Rossini got discouraged and didn't go to the second performance; his friends had to hunt him up and tell him it had been a hit. History, of course, has since consigned Paisiello's work to the list of operatic also-rans. Rossini didn't take criticism or failure lightly. His attempt at something a little more serious and in keeping with the times, William Tell, was not well received and he subsequently quit writing opera altogether at the age of 37. He lived another thirty years.
San Carlo burned to the ground during a performance of one of Rossini's works in 1816, but was rebuilt in a few months time. It was even more spectacular than the original. Stendahl wrote that he felt as if he had been "transported to the palace of some oriental emperor…my eyes were dazzled, my soul enraptured. There is nothing in the whole of Europe to compare with it."
By 1850, a northern Italian composer had appeared on the scene: Giuseppe Verdi. In spite of the prestige of the Naples theater, the unfavorable conditions of censorship in the Kingdom of Naples at least partially contributed to Verdi's decision to take his operas elsewhere, particularly after Neapolitan censors objected to the regicidal theme of Un Ballo in Maschera. Even after the unification of Italy, when censorship was no longer a problem in Naples, Italy's greatest composer still regarded Naples and San Carlo as a provincial backwater.
By the late 19th century, the emphasis in opera in Italy had for political and economic reasons shifted to the north. San Carlo was late in introducing the new music of the day, works by Gounod, Bizet, and Wagner, for example. Neapolitan composers such as Leoncavallo (I Pagliacci) and Alfano (most famous for having finished Puccini's last work, Turandot ) went elsewhere to live and work. Arturo Toscanini took over the direction of La Scala in Milan in 1899 and assured that city's supremacy in the world of opera.
San Carlo has since continued to go its own peculiar way. In 1901, a young Neapolitan, Enrico Caruso, sang the role of Nemorino in Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore. If you go to Caruso's house in Naples today and see that it has become something of a shrine, you might well forget that the voice subsequently judged the greatest operatic tenor in history didn't go over well with the hometown crowd. He got a bad review in the papers and vowed never to sing in Naples again. He kept his promise. He went to America and became one of the "tired, poor, and huddled masses, yearning" —to record for RCA.
San Carlo has recently undergone an overhaul like none in its history. There are new electrical systems, new public lifts and stage elevators, extensive fireproof reupholstering and smoke detectors with spray extinguishers. Thus, new life has been granted to a venerable institution. It is not common, you know, to find places of culture, such as San Carlo, in continuous operation for two-and-a-half centuries, anymore than it is common to find large centers of population, such as Naples, continuously inhabited for two-and-a-half millennia. Perhaps it is fitting that one is home to the other.
I see that the
New York Times had an item yesterday about the
appropriateness of booing at the opera. In Naples,
that is not up for discussion. Let's assume that you
are a lowbrow knuckle-dragging cultural yahoo, the
kind of guy who would have met Mother Theresa and
said, "Hey, howya doin', Sister—here, have a beer!"
Then you will be happy to learn that the San Carlo
Theater can still be as rough and tumble as it was
when Mark Twain was here in 1869. He described the
audience at San Carlo as "…three thousand miscreants…
[with]…all the vile, mean traits there are".
[The entire excerpt on Naples from The Innocents Abroad may be viewed by clicking here.]
San Carlo has always been what they called in the days of vaudeville a "tough house". Far from being the refined types we imagine opera-goers to be —signalling severe disapproval by lofting their eyebrows into little arches of arrogance and delicately "aheming" once or twice— Neapolitans boo, whistle at, and heckle the performers. If the performer is doing all right, then the public heckle one another, just for something to do. I have seen them cat–call the scenery when the opening curtain went up, just to let the singers quivering off–stage know what was in store for them.
Way back in
1816, for example, Rossini
chose to premiere his Barber of Seville in
Rome instead of Naples although at the time he was
actually in charge of San Carlo. His opera was a
reworking of an already beloved opera of the same name
by the popular Neapolitan composer Giovanni Paisiello.
Rossini, aware that the hometown crowd resented his
efforts, thought that he might escape their wrath by
opening away from Naples. It didn't work. Paisiello
fans from Naples—"opera hooligans," to use a more
modern and thoroughly appropriate term— followed him
and disrupted the premiere of what has since come to
be regarded as one of the greatest works of the comic
opera genre. And later, in 1901, local critics panned
their own hometown boy, Enrico
Caruso, so severely that he took umbrage and
then took himself to America, never to sing in Naples
In the 1960's, the San Carlo audience was so unforgiving to the soprano in Madame Butterfly, that she gave the whole house the local version of the "finger"— the "horns," right from center stage. One time, tenor Franco Corelli actually ran off the stage at San Carlo to get a heckler. And when the baritone in Pagliacci delivered the opening line of the opera, a rhetorical question to an on–stage audience assembled for a carnival: "Si può?" (“May I begin?”), someone in the real-life audience at San Carlo shouted "No!" Similarly, a line towards the end of La Boheme has the tenor singing, "I can no longer stay." Someone in the upper boxes saw that as a straight line for his own jibe: "So leave!"
And at the end of the 1991/92 season, Francesco Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur went along for a few acts, not sailing along, mind you, but not exactly sinking, either. Local and little known tenor Nunzio Todisco was singing opposite the great, if fading, prima donna, soprano Raina Kabaivanska. Nothing special. Maybe the costumes were a little out-of-epoch, that sort of thing, but nothing that couldn't be salvaged by some good singing. Then, third act: festive scene in the villa of the Prince of Bouillon. The majordomo gives the cue for the tenor's appearance by announcing the arrival of the Count of Saxony, played by our main man Nunzio: "Il conte di Sassonia!" Ta–taaa! No Count. There follow a few very one–sided duets with an imaginary tenor, before maestro Daniel Oren calls down the curtain and sets off to find the real thing.
Nunzio has been sulking in the dressing room, having the classic opera singer's breakdown, tantrum, paroxysm, fit of pique, outburst of irascibility and display of ill temper. "I can't go on!" he thunders, moans, laments and bleeds. (Yes, a thesaurus is every opera critic's best friend.) His crisis is due to his perception that the crowd is stacked like the Tower of Pisa. They are clearly on the soprano's side, he says, and out to ambush him. His critics would later say that he was having trouble with his part, so he just choked. Anyway, maestro gives him a pep talk and trots him back out for the rest of the opera, announcing to the audience that in spite of "indisposition," the tenor would valiantly carry on. That is like telling vultures that the carrion delivery van is in the neighborhood.
When he got back out there, they heckled him. He gave as good as he got, however, resorting, in kind, to foul language and asking the Kabaivanska fans in one box how much they had been paid to root for her. Arms were seen reaching out from the wings frantically trying to wave him off the stage. In vaudeville, they used a hook. At one point, a fist-fight threatened to erupt between opposing fans, and the glorious highlight of the evening was the appearance of doubled–barrelled "horns"—one of the most vulgar gestures you can make in Italian society—a lady in a box was flashing both hands out to the entire house, waggling them around to one and all like obscene little antennae.
After the opera, Nunzio was unrepentant. He called his leading lady an "old hen" and said that the only reason she had any fans at all was that her husband bussed them in, getting them to attend by promising free pizza afterwards. This was an unforgivable Blowing of One's Cool. His contract was broken for the remainder of the run, and an understudy carried on. Also, he was sued by for Defamation of Character and Not Being Nice to a Soprano.