Teatro San Carlo Napoli, Radomil, 2004 - CC BY-SA 3.0


Teatro San Carlo in Naples, built in 1737, the first great opera house in Italy, was built by King Charles of Bourbon to provide the capital of his kingdom of a great work culture.

In Naples, at the beginning of the eighteenth century, there were only small theatres, the Mercadante (then called theatre of the Fund), the Fiorentini, the San Bartolomeo, not suitable for the representation of opera who at that time was being emerge as a major popular show.

King Charles gave assignment to the architects Giovanni Antonio Medrano and Angelo Carasale to build a theatre that had a capacity of 3000 spectators. The theatre was opened on November 4, 1737. It was leaning against the Royal Palace on the right and left to the Royal Gardens. By order of Charles of Bourbon was open a passage between the wing called the Old Guard of the Royal Palace and the Theatre, very close to the royal box, so that the king and his court were not forced to go outdoors to get into the theatre.

In the early years the theatre was directed by the impresario Angelo Carasale that gave great importance to the dance, because the show was preferred by the sovereign. The first performance was “The Achilles in Skyros” of Domenico Sarro text by Pietro Metastasio.

At first the best Neapolitan artists, from many “musical conservatories” in the city, played at San Carlo: the singers Celeste Coltellini, Gaetano Majorana (Caffariello) and Carlo Broschi (Farinella).

With the establishment of the theater, it represented the works of famous authors, such as the world premiere in 1752 in “La Clemenza di Tito” by Gluck, in 1761 and 1762 were the first performances of two works by Bach, “Catone in Utica” and “Alessandro nelle Indie.”

Even the Neapolitan composer Domenico Cimarosa was called to represent his work at San Carlo; at the end of ‘ 700 represented “L’eroe cinese” text by Metastasio, “Oreste” text Cimarosa and “Artemisia regina di Caria” text by Marchesini. The orchestra was under the direction of the maestro Giovanni Paisiello.

The century ended with the Neapolitan Revolution and the establishment of the Republic, the San Carlo took the name of the Teatro Nazionale di San Carlo and became the spokesman of the ideals of liberty, fraternity and equality; this new way ended in a few months with the return of the Bourbons in Naples.

With the accession to the throne of Joachim Murat in 1808, the San Carlo was entrusted to impresario Barbaja (1809) which addressed the need for restructuring. It is said that the Barbaja, to procure the capital of restructuring, spent a season at La Scala in Milan as manager of the casino that was in the theater. There, with his talent, he plucked very good gambling the rich men of Milan.

The renovation work entrusted to the architect Antonio Niccolini lasted two years, from 1809 to 1811, and transformed the look of the theatre as it is preserved today.

It was completely redone front view, with the addition of a rectangular building where there was the new entrance of the theater. At the entrance was a covered gallery where the carriages were standing to bring down the spectators. The first floor was placed the foyer, with balcony decorated with columns and sculptures that gave to the theater a neoclassical façade.

On 13 February 1816, a fire completely destroyed the theatre stalls and the roof of the same. The reconstruction works were entrusted to the same Niccolini that rearranged the stalls and the proscenium as the previous. They were also redone all the interior decoration of the stalls. The ceiling was raised by several meters to improve the acoustics and painted by brothers Cammarano with Apollo and Minerva who encounter the greatest artists. A bas relief of “the time and the hours” adorned the proscenium.

Stendhal, who understood the art (he suffered from a disease called Stendhal syndrome: the sight of beautiful art works passing out the estrangement), said the San Carlo renewed that there was nothing, in Europe, that stood comparison with this theatre.

From 1815 Gioacchino Rossini began his intense collaboration with the Neapolitan theatre, so much so that for a time he lived in Naples, in Toledo street, at the palace of Barbaja, his dear friend. His first performance was “Elizabeth Queen of England” with Isabella Colbran, then a series of works by Rossini was played: Armida, Mosè in Egitto, Ermione and many others.

Another great musician, Gaetano Donizetti was assiduous of the theatre, that presented an extraordinary premiere of “Lucia di Lammermoor” at 26 September 1835, among his other works. The best singers of the time performed in Naples: Maria Malibran, Luigi Lablache, Giuditta Pasta.

Other great musicians lent their works to the San Carlo: Nicolò Paganini held some concerts, Vincenzo Bellini, yet student at the Conservatory,  presented his work “Bianca e Fernando”, which because of censorship became “White and Gernando”; it is said that at the Conservatory for the final exam, the committee chairman said Bellini that the examination was not necessary, because it would be the audience at the San Carlo, since his work was going to stage.

The San Carlo theatre represented many works of Giuseppe Verdi: Ernani, Nabucco, I Lombardi in the first Crusade, Aida and Luisa Miller, while Saverio Mercadante born in Altamura, in a duel artistic remained in the annals of the theatre, contrasted with his works Alzira, Orazi and Curiazi and others.

Lyric activity was accompanied by the ballet opera, the ballet school of the San Carlo Theatre was inaugurated in 1812. It was directed by the greatest dancers and choreographers of the time. This school graduated, among others, Fanny Cerrito, famous dancer of the nineteenth century, was “etoile” at La Scala, London and Paris.

The foyer of the historic theatre with loggia characterized by neoclassical columns, located on the first floor, along with other adjacent rooms, was granted in use, in the second half of the nineteenth century, at the Circolo dell’Unione in exchange to grant of the boxes of property of various noble Neapolitan families members of the Circolo, who kept this privilege since the time of the Bourbons. Since then the theatre foyer used as a Hall that is located on the mezzanine level between the entrance of the theatre and above first floor. In the 80s of the last century it was assumed by the managers to bring these locals availability in the theatre, then it finished to nothing.

In the first half of the twentieth century (1937), designed by Michele Platinia, it was built on the side of the royal gardens a new building intended to be a new and more worthy Foyer, this new building was destroyed during the war in 1943; It was rebuilt after the war and returned to the same as the previous function. In 2009, during the renovation of the theatre has been created a new and definitive Foyer in a large hall below the stalls.

The early twentieth century Giuseppe Martucci inaugurated to San Carlo Wagnerian tradition presenting different works of the great German including Lohengrin, Tannhauser. In 1907 Strauss comes to town to attend his opera Salome.

After World War II the San Carlo was the first Italian opera house to resume business. From 1946 to 1949 he was staged many works with the participation of local artists, including the baritone Ugo Savarese who then sang at La Fenice in Venice with Maria Callas and La Scala with Tebaldi, the soprano Giustina (Elena) Cristiano, who was in the cast of Boheme by Puccini in the role of Musetta with the great tenor Beniamino Gigli in the role of Rodolfo. In this period the Gigli sang often at the San Carlo, often accompanied by his daughter, the soprano Rina Gigli (born in Naples in 1916), playing various works of his vast repertoire. In 1946 he was the first Italian theatre to go on tour abroad, performing with great success at Covent Garden in London.

Among all the major opera singers who performed in the Neapolitan theatre from the ’50s and’ 70s of the last century we mention in particular the great soprano Renata Tebaldi that, partly because of the great friendship that bound her to the Art Manager Pasquale Di Costanzo, often she sang at the San Carlo, where his preference on his great rival Maria Callas.

In addition, in the second half of the twentieth century, the greatest voices of the time have performed on stage at the San Carlo.  We mention, in a list that is not exhaustive, the names of the great tenors Di Stefano, Del Monaco, Lauri Volpi, Pavarotti, Domingo and Carreras and soprano, besides the mentioned Tebaldi and Callas, Toti Dal Monte, Kabaivanska, Mirella Freni, Caballé. To conducting alternated great masters such as Muti, Abbado, Gavazzeni, Sinopoli, Mehta, Von Karajan. They performed soloists such as Rostropovich, Benedetti Michelangeli, Accardo, Ughi, Rubinstein.

The dance school and the Ballet Company, after a dark period after World War II, in the 70s regain their place in the artistic history of the theatre with the advent to the school and then the Ballet Company of Anna Razzi. They perform on stage of the theatre etoile as Nureyev, Fracci, Terabust and Bolle. The choir of the San Carlo stands starting from the direction of the Maestro Michele Lauro and continues with the directions of Giacomo Maggiore, Ciro Visco and Salvatore Caputo.

In 1989 the theatre was renovated to adapt to the security measures required of the latest regulations. Its capacity for more than 3000 seats was reduced, for safety reasons, to 2260 viewers.

The theatre was again subjected to work in 2008, the stalls today is completely restored with new seating, it is restored as the big painting that covers the ceiling. Besides the room it was equipped with an efficient air conditioning system and, as already said, has been created a new Foyer hall below the stalls.

(Photo at the top: Teatro San Carlo Napoli, Radomil, 2004 – CC BY-SA 3.0)