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Great opera houses of the world: your guided tour

Features - Classical Music | Opera | Stage

Great opera houses of the world: your guided tour

by Melissa Lesnie on June 13, 2011 (June 13, 2011) filed under Classical Music | Opera | Stage | Comment Now
Limelight gives you a front-row seat inside the world's most illustrious opera theatres, old and new: their history, classic performances and the hottest tickets coming up.

Find more features and interviews on opera in Limelight's July Opera Issue, on sale now.

Italy

Teatro alla Scala, Milan 

One of the world's oldest and grandest theatres, La Scala has become synonymous with opera in Italy, the birthplace of the artform. Designed by Giuseppe Piermarini in Neoclassical style, it first opened its doors in 1778 with Salieri's L'Europa riconosciuta for its inaugural performance. Built at the behest of Empress Maria Theresa of Austria to replace Milan's Royal Ducal Theatre destroyed by fire two years prior, La Scala became the home of opera seria, especially the music of Rossini. It hosted the world premieres of Bellini's Norma (1831), Catalani's La Wally (1892) and Puccini's Madama Butterfly (1904). 

Legendary Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini became artistic director in the early 20th century, cementing La Scala's reputation for Verdi performance as well as bringing a new focus to the works of Wagner. Toscanini left a lasting legacy, with the 135-strong Teatro alla Scala Orchestra now considered one of the world’s best for in the genre. Claudio Abbado and Riccardo Muti have also taken up the baton, the latter leaving in 2005 - citing "staff hostility" - after 19 years as music director.

The building sustained severe damage in WWII bombings, and a major restoration effort ensued. Extensive renovations again took place in 2002 - 2004 to expand the backstage area and modernise technical mechanisms. Today, the theatre seats 2,800 and boasts one of the largest stages in Italy (16.15m d x 20.4m w x 26m h).

Fun Fact: The loggione gallery above the boxes are famously peopled with the most critical and often merciless opera devotees, who have been the cause of many a fiasco and audience riot over the years. As recently as 2006, they booed Roberto Alagna off the stage during Verdi's Aida, his understudy replacing him mid-scene without time to don his costume.

In the 19th century, opera-goers were even rowdier thanks to a casino stationed in the foyer.

One to watch: Verdi's Rigoletto in a new Luc Bondy production, with Vittorio Grigolo as the Duke and Gustavo Dudamel conducting. November 6-17, 2012.  

Captured on film: This visually stunning 2009 production of the first opera, Monteverdi's L'Orfeo, takes a Titian painting and the traditions of commedia dell'arte as its inspiration.

 

Teatro La Fenice, Venice

Inaugurated in 1792 with Paisiello's musical drama I Guochi d'Agrigento, La Fenice ("The Phoenix") has risen from the ashes more than once to loom large in the city of canals. It was the first theatre in Venice which sought to claim its status in the classical, elegant facade, designed by G A Selva. Even after it was burned down and rebuilt in 1837, it remained one of Italy's leading theatres.

Verdi composed five operas for La Fenice: Ernani (1844), Attila (1846), Rigoletto (1851), La traviata (1853) and Simon Boccanegra (1857), and the theatre helped Giacomo Meyerbeer rise to stardom with his Il crociato in Egitto (1824).

From 1949, the names of Maria Calls and Renata Tebaldi began to appear in the playbills when Callas took on the role of Elvira in I Puritani. In 1960, La Stupenda graced the Fenice stage in the eponymous role of Alcina in Handel's opera.

On January 1996 a devastating fire destroyed much of the theatre. Riccardo Muti heralded its triumphant reopening in 2003. To safeguard against more bad luck, the theatre's entire historical archive has been digitised and is available to browse online.

One to watch: La Fenice is staging a new production of Verdi's Il Trovatore in December 2011, following Rigoletto and La Traviata as a trilogy celebrating the 150th anniversary of the unification of Italy. Directed by Lorenzo Mariani with set and costumes by William Orlandi.

Captured on film: The incredible male soprano Michael Maniaci's aria in Meyerbeer's Il crociato in Egitto.

 

Teatro di San Carlo, Naples

Italy's oldest surviving opera house claims opera buffa as a particular specialty. After just eight months of construction, the Real Teatro di San Carlo opened in 1737 with Domenico Sarro's Achille in Scirro to a libretto by Metastasio. The ambition and speed at which the theatre was built earned the Sicilian architect Giovanni Antonio Medrano the nickname, "the Man of Miracles".

Alas, in 1816 the theatre was burned to the ground by a stage lantern. Rebuilt in just ten months on a design by Antonio Niccolin, the new theatre prompted Stendhal to remark on its splendour: "It dazzles the eyes, it enraptures the soul". It is this theatre we see today, and that attracted Malibran, Colbran and other illustrious singers of the day. Rossini was engaged as San Carlo's artistic director and composer-in-residence for seven seasons, composing ten operas during his tenure. Donizetti was next in line for the post, building on the San Carlo prestige over ten years and premiering Lucia di Lammermoor there in 1835.

A €67-million renovation was completed in 2009, restoring the theatre to its original glory (with San Carlo's famed acoustics remaining intact) while introducing more modern amenities and replacing outdated technical facilities. 

Fun fact: There is an apocryphal story of how the San Carlo came into being. King Charles VII of Naples and his queen were on their way to attend an opera at the run-down Teatro San Bartolomeo. When their horses were tripped up and their carriage upset by loose paving stones, the queen, fuming, insisted her husband build her a new opera house. 

One to watch: See Lucia di Lammermoor in the house for which it was written, February 10-18, 2012.

Captured on film: Pergolesi's charming opera buffa, La Serva Padrona

Germany & Austria

Bayreuth Festspielhaus

Richard Wagner's own purpose-built theatre, bankrolled primarily by the loopy King Ludwig II of Bavaria, the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth is a monument to one man's vision that has revolutionised the way theatres are constructed today.

Unlike the traditional opera house design with several tiers arranged in a horse-shoe configuration, the Festspielhaus's 1,925 seats ascend in a single steeply-shaped wedge inspired by Greek ampitheatres, with no galleries or boxes. The pit was larger than any other in Europe at the time to cater for Wagner's expanded orchestral sound, and covered by a hood so that the musicians do not distract from the gripping action on stage.

The foundation stone was laid on May 22, 1872 (Wagner's birthday) with the building completed for the premiere of the complete Ring Cycle over four days in August 1876. Since then, journeying to the annual Bayreuth festival devoted to Wagner's operas has become a rite of passage for composers and music aficionados around the world. In the 1880s it was the French who fell most ardently under the spell of Wagnerisme; Debussy, Saint-Saëns, Fauré, Chausson and d'Indy all made the pilgrimage.

The theatre is still very much a family business. Richard Wagner’s great-granddaughter Katharina took over the theatre last year following the death of Wolfgang Wagner. Her 2007 directorial debut at the Bayreuth Festival, a production of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg in 2007, was booed. In October 2010 she sought to end the postwar boycott of Wagner's music in Israel by inviting the Israel Chamber Orchestra to play in Bayreuth, but Ms Wagner's visit to Israel was canceled after expressions of outrage from Holocaust survivors.

Captured on film: Opus Arte DVD is releasing the acclaimed 2007 Bayreuth Ring Cycle conducted by Christian Thielemann.

 

Grosses Festspielhaus, Salzburg

 

Salzburg is to Mozart lovers what Bayreuth is to hardened Wagnerites. The festival in the Classical composer's birthplace has become synonymous with Mozart opera performance, especially during the years of Herbert von Karajan's music direction from 1956 until his death in 1989.

In 1960 the Great Festival Hall opened its doors with a performance of Der Rosenkavalier conducted by Karajan. Built to a design by Clemens Holzmeister (the architect of the Small Festival Hall during the 1920s), the building incorporates the original facade of the former royal stables, transformed into a break room. At 100 metres wide, it is one of the largest opera theatres in the world. 

he 250th anniversary of Mozart's death in style by staging all 22 of his operatic works.

Captured on film: From the 2006 anniversary celebrations, La Finta Giardinera starring Véronique Gens, with the Mozarteum Orchestra Salzburg conducted by Ivor Bolton.

 

Vienna State Opera

Gustav Mahler was one of its illustrious conductors, and members of the Vienna Philharmonic are recruited from its orchestra. In the waltz capital of the world, it has long been the venue of the city's glittering annual opera ball.The Wiener Staatsoper was the first major building on Ringstrasse, commissioned by the Viennese "city expansion fund". The Neo-Renaissance-style theatre of the Vienna Imperial Opera, as it then was, opened in 1869.

Mahler was required to convert from Judaism to Catholicism in order to be accepted as music director, a position he held from 1897 to 1907. Richard Strauss also occupied the post from 1919-1924.

Towards the end of World War II the opera was set alight by an American bombardment. The front section, which had been walled off as a precaution, remained intact, sparing the spectacular frescoes in the foyer. But the auditorium and stage were completely destroyed along with much of the original décor. The Staatsoper reopened in 1955 with Fidelio conducted by Karl Böhm, ushering in a golden era remarkable in particular for Elisabeth Schwarzkopf's performances.

 

Fun fact: It was at the Vienna Imperial Opera that Mahler introduced the custom of dimming the lights of a theatre during performances; a practice that initially outraged patrons but has become a given in our concert-going lives.

One to watch: Simone Young conducts Strauss's Daphne in December 2011.

Captured on film: Anna Netrekbo's Carmen.

France

Palais Garnier, Paris

Home to the Opéra national de Paris, this immense, gilded marble palace was built on the orders of Napoleon III as part of the Baron Haussmann's overhaul of the city. The ensuing architecture competition was won by the then little-known Charles Garnier. Building began in 1860 but was not completed until 1875 due to intervening circumstances including the Franco-Prussian war.

The sumptuous interior is famous for its grand symmetrical staircase and the rococo decadence of the Salon du Glacier, where bacchantes and fauns gambol in relief. The marble and bronze busts of countless composers and classical figures stare out at visitors from archways and corners. The theatre itself is decked out in red and gold - 1,900 red velvet seats - and lit by the 8-tonne chandelier hanging beneath Marc Chagall's cheerily anachronistic ceiling painting, added in 1964. Apollo and his gilded lyre preside over the Palais Garnier at the very peak of the building, 73.6m above ground.

 

Fun fact: In 1896, one of the counterweights of the grand chandelier fell, resulting in a death. This accident and the building itself were the inspiration for Gaston Leroux's Phantom of the Opera. 

One to watch: No-one does the infectious, elegant rhythms of the French-Baroque like, well, the French. Jean-Philippe Rameau's first opera, Hippolyte et Aricie, will be presented by Emmanuelle Haïm's energetic period-instrument ensemble Concert d'Astrée with a cast including English mezzo Sarah Connolly and Brisbane-born tenor Topi Lehtipuu. June 2012.

Captured on film:

Natalie Dessay's brazen Cleopatra in this year's sensational Giulio Cesare.

Salle Favart: l'Opéra-Comique, Paris

The charming Opéra-Comique is located in Place Boïeldieu in the 2nd arrondissement of Paris, not far from the Palais Garnier. One of the oldest surviging musical establishments in France, the company was founded in 1714 towards the end of Louis XIV's reign. The genre opéra comique is the theatre's main repertory: not necessarily comic in style, sung lines are interspersed with spoken drama.

In 1783 the company moved into the first Salle Favart (architect Jean-François Heurtier) and opened with a performance of André Grétry in the presence of Queen Marie-Antoinette. The theatre was plagued by disaster, burning to the ground in 1838, with a fire during a performance claiming more than 80 victims in 1887. Facing bankruptcy in the 1930s, the company became part of the Paris Opéra.

In spite of its misfortunes, the Opéra-Comique theatre was host to several significant premieres, including Berlioz's The Damnation of Faust (1846), Bizet's Carmen (1875), Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande (1902) and Poulenc's Les Mamelles de Tiresias (1947). 

Fun fact: The Opéra-Comique company was originally formed from an amalgamation of fairground troupes.

One to watch: Purcell's only opera Dido and Aeneas was commissioned by the Francophile King Charles II. William Christie takes up the baton in with his Les Arts Florissants for a Baroque performance par excellence. March 2012

Captured on film: Anna Caterina Antonacci will fog up your opera binoculars with her sultry Carmen in this performance conducted by John Eliot Gardiner.

L'Opéra Bastille

 

The second home of the Opéra national de Paris was the brainchild of the composer French composer/conductor Pierre Boulez, who in 1968 urged the then-President François Mitterrand to sponsor a competition to build a new theatre. The starkly modern structure on Rue Lyon in Paris was designed by Canadian-Uruguayan architect Carlos Ott and inaugurated in 1989, though it did not see its first complete opera performance until 1990 with Berlioz's Les Troyens. With transparent facades, huge expanses of blue granite and a glass ceiling, it could not be more different from the highly decorative Palais Garnier. The Bastille houses 2,700 seats, supposedly acoustically consistent throughout the auditorium, and at its largest the pit accommodates 130 musicians.

Fun fact: The building was inaugurated on July 13, 1989, on the 200th anniversary of the storming of the Bastille, the medieval prison in the centre of Paris that came to represent royal authority. Its downfall came at the height of the French Revolution and is still commemorated with Bastille Day.

One to watch: The quintessentially French Romantic masterpiece, Gounod's Faust, starring Roberto Alagna and Inva Mula opens in a new production from September 22, 2011.

Captured on film: Jonas Kaufmann portrays Massenet's tortured Werther.

 

UK

English National Opera (London Coliseum)

The ENO has been doing daring things in the opera world lately, with Monty Python genius Terry Gilliam staging a wicked Berlioz's Damnation of Faust this year. The London Coliseum was designed by Frank Matcham in 1904 with the stated ambition of being the largest, finest "people's palace of entertainment" of the age. And indeed it is: with 2,359 seats it is the largest theatre in London and also boasts the city's largest proscenium arch, measuring 55 feet wide and 34 feet high. The English National Opera, formerly Sadler's Wells, is quintessentially British: 85% of the 2010/11 season's singers and conductors are British born, trained or resident.

Fun fact: The theatre on St Martin's Lane served as a canteen for Air Raid Patrol workers during the Second World War, with Churchill giving a speech from the stage.

One to watch: Sir Charles Mackerras had a long and prolific association with the ENO, which is celebrated in a gala of his most beloved music: Handel, Mozart, Gilbert & Sullivan, Britten and Janácek. Lesley Garrett, Yvonne Kenny and other greats perform with the ENO's orchestra and chorus. June 2011.

Captured on film: The late English tenor Philip Langridge in Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes, 1994.

 

 

Glyndebourne

Glyndebourne is one of opera’s most unlikely, and most inspiring, success stories. Founded in 1934 by John Christie and his opera singer wife, Audrey Mildmay, the Sussex countryside estate emanates a curious mix of the quaint and the grand. Most remarkably, it has remained financially independent and family-owned since it was opened.

The Glyndebourne musical bug started as a drawing room with an organ and expanded to a small auditorium of 300 seats. Early years of the Glyndebourne Festival revolved almost entirely around Mozart before gradually expanding to include works by other composers such as Benjamin Britten, whose Rape of Lucretia and Albert Herring were premiered there in 1946 and 1947 respectively.

The annual festival's reputation grew, and so did its facilities - the heart of Glyndebourne since 1994 has been its state-of-the-art, 1,200-seat opera house, with its interior of century-old pine that gives a warm acoustic. Yet it has lost none of the intimacy that has made it such a beloved English musical institution. Despite its cottage-industry feel, it has hosted some of the world's brightest opera stars over the years, including Dame Janet Baker, Pavarotti in his British debut, and Joan Sutherland as early as 1960.

The London Philharmonic is the Glyndebourne Festival's house orchestra, headed by Vladimir Jurowski.

One to watch: Britten's Turn of the Screw, starring Toby Spence and Swedish soprano Miah Persson, runs as part of the 2011 festival in August.

 

Captured on film: Janet Baker sings Dido's Lament.

Royal Opera House Covent Garden, London

Home of the Royal Opera and Royal Ballet, this is England's oldest and most famous opera house. Originally the Theatre Royal, built on the site of an ancient convent garden, it functioned mainly as a playhouse for decades until 1734, when its first ballet was staged. The following year, the first of George Frederic Handel's regular seasons at Covent Garden heralded a golden age of Baroque opera and English oratorio - several of his greatest stage works had their premieres here.

The current building is the third theatre on the site following devastating fires in 1808 and 1857. The facade, foyer and auditorium we see today dates from 1858 in Edward Middleton Barry's design, but most other elements date from modern-day reconstruction, including the Paul Hamlyn Hall's large iron and glass atrium, historically part of the old Covent Garden flower market and still widely referred to as the "floral hall".

On the magnificent Covent Garden stage, Joan Sutherland sang Violetta in Zeffirelli's 1960 revival of La Traviata; music director Georg Solti revolutionised modern opera performance from the pit upwards, and visionary stage directors like Luchino Visconti brought a gripping new sense of drama.

Fun fact: During the Second World War, the Royal Opera House became a dancehall, and very nearly remained one.

One to watch: David McVicar's production of Berlioz's epic Les Troyens, an opera not seen at ROH since 1972. Conducted by Antonio Pappano with Anna Caterina Antonacci, Eva-Maria Westbroek and Jonas Kaufmann heading an international star cast. June - July 2012.

Captured on film: It would be hard to miss Bryn Terfel's rotund, leering Falstaff!

 

 

 

Spain

Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia, Valencia

Curvaceous white forms and a distinctive shell-like construction - no, not the Sydney Opera House but the shiny new Palace of Arts in Valencia, built in 2005 and inaugurated to the tune of Fidelio. Valencia's homegrown architect Santiago Calatrava designed the Olympic stadium in Athens before his €250m culture precinct became one of the biggest performing arts centres in Europe. Architecturally, the new space is replete with surprising details and views of the city and the centre's Mediterranean gardens. It seems to hover dreamily over its 11,000 square metres of surrounding water, an opera oasis.

The Sala Principal (main hall) seats 1,700 and is home to the resident orchestra, the Cumunitat Valenciana conducted by Zubin Mehta. Here, Mehta leads a new annual music and opera feast, the Festival fel Mediterraneo. The 2008-2009 festival included a high-tech Ring Cycle that matches the modern virtuosity of the building; who knows what Wagner would have made of the production's computer graphics and human pyramids (it was staged by acrobatic troupe La Fura dels Baus) but one can imagine it appealing to his sense of the Gesamtkunstwerk.

Fun fact: The Palau is the tallest opera house in the world and boasts the third-largest orchestral pit accommodating 120 musicians.

One to watch: Placido Doming presents a series celebrating the centenary of Italian opera composer Gian Carlo Menotti (1911-2007). July 2011.

Captured on film: 

 

Teatro Real, Madrid

Madrid's Royal Theatre is a stone's throw from the Palacio Real, the residence of Queen Isabel II who ordered the construction of the opera house but wasn't able to enjoy the venue until 1850, thirty years after building began. El Real opened with Donizetti's La Favorite and in 1863 Verdi visited the theatre for the Spanish premiere of his La Forza del Destino - Italian bel canto repertoire was embraced alongside zarzuelas. The Ballets Russes made their way to the theatre in 1925 for a performance in the presence of Nijinsky and Stravinsky.

Madrid-born Placido Domingo has had a long history with El Real; this year, celebrating his 70th birthday, the great tenor stood at the theatre's balcony and cried "Viva Madrid!" to his adoring fans as they sang "Happy Birthday" in Spanish. 

Fun fact: The Teatro Real hosted the 14th Eurovision Song Contest in 1969. Performers shared the stage with an immense metal sculpture by Spain's leading surrealist artist, Dalí.

One to watch: Messiaen's St François d'Assise with music direction from Messiaen specialist Sylvain Cambreling. July 2011.

Captured on Film: An enchanting La bohème with Laura Giordano as Musetta.

United States

Metropolitan Opera, Lincoln Centre, New York

The Met is one of the most extravagant, prestigious and biggest-spending opera houses today, but make no mistake: it's a singer's House, first and foremost. A debut at the Met is considered a sign of having "arrived." Juan Diego Flórez, Anna Netrebko, American stars Joyce DiDonato Renée Fleming, Jessye Norman and Deborah Voigt: this was, and is, their home. James Levine, music director since 1976, breathes energy and fire into each and every performance.

The Met's current 3,800-seat home in the Lincoln Centre on Broadway opened in 1966 with the premiere of Samuel Barber's Antony and Cleopatra starring Leontyne Price (libretto by Franco Zeffirelli).

Although the current general manager Peter Gelb has shifted focus to new productions in a bid to attract younger audiences, it is the lavish classics that have given the Met its reputation for greatness. 

Limelight's opera blogger Sarah Noble has chronicled her recent Met experiences here.

One to watch: The Met's extravagant production of Philip Glass's Satyagraha, with Richard Croft reprising his role as Gandhi and also starring Australia's Rachelle Durkin. November - December, 2011.

Captured on film: Romanian superstar soprano Angela Gheorghiu in Zeffirelli's La Traviata.

 

Australia

Sydney Opera House

It may be newer and of more modest proportions than most of the historic buildings on the list, and the acoustics and size of its opera theatre are constantly under attack, but nonetheless the Sydney Opera House is the only theatre to stand as a national icon in any country, and remains one of the most breathtaking tourist destinations in the world.

It's distinctive silhouette is internationally recongisable, the naturalistic design and glass curtain walls overlook the picturesque Botanical Gardens. It may have been designed by a Danish architect, but it is a quintessentially Australian building.

In the 1940s conductor Eugene Goossens lobbied for a theatre to be built at Sydney's breezy Bennelong Point, arguing that the Sydney Town Hall was bursting at the seams, but teething problems and a break with architect Jørn Utzon caused construction delays and a cost blowout fourteen times the projected budget. When the Sydney Opera House was finally complete, in 1973, Queen Elizabeth the II attended the official opening.

 Since then, we have seen Dame Joan Sutherland's farewell gala and memorable, innovative world premieres from Australian composers Richard Mills (Batavia) and Brett Dean (Bliss). Opera lovers in Australia and continue to follow news of the controversial $1b development plans to improve the much-maligned acousics.

One to watch: Filmmaker Bruce Beresford directs a new production of Carlisle Floyd's Of Mice and Men, based on the classic John Steinbeck novel. July - August 2011

Captured on film: Joan Sutherland and Luciano Pavarotti share the stage in Sydney in 1983.

 

China

Guangzhou Opera House

South China's new opera house, inaugurated late 2010, has been hailed an architectural masterpiece. Iraqi-born Zaha Hadid's design for a multi-purpose performing arts centre along Pearl River represents China's shifting cultural landscape. Dramatic curves, innovative forms and foreboding granite structures mix naturalistic and industrial elements, just like the city for which the theatre was designed.

The 1,800-seat hall has been built in collaboration with Melbourne-based acousticians to ensure it caters for both traditional Chinese and European sounds - the promise of exciting arts events to come. Hadid describes the Opera House as her "monument to the new milennium", and so it is.