Rupert Christiansen enjoys a rare view of the world’s most magical opera houses
By Rupert Christiansen, via telegraph.co.uk
Today, in a world obsessed with access and democracy, these tiered and layered buildings can appear elitist relics of a society encoded with social hierarchy, defiantly demarcating the rich in their velvety private boxes and gilded foyers from the poor packed pell-mell on to hard benches in the unadorned upper galleries.
Most European opera houses, prominent sitting targets in the city centres, suffered severe wartime damage from bombing and are now restored to the point that little remains of their original fabric: the major houses in Munich, Vienna, Dresden and Berlin all fall into this category. Fire and dilapidation have done their worst elsewhere, too. Even what does survive is often only illusory, for these are buildings which conceal as much as they reveal – behind the pompous proscenium arch and its red plush curtains, backstage is a hellish verminous warren of mildewed storerooms, frayed cables and peeling paint, while the glamour of the auditorium is mere trompe l’oeil, a patina of prettiness on pasteboard, like a fairground carousel.
But there is a durable romance about these places, too, magnificently captured and celebrated in a spectacular new book by the American photographer David Leventi. He has produced gorgeous colour images of the spectrally empty auditoriums of 45 opera houses, almost all viewed from the same central vantage point on stage. It is as though we are being made to see what the prima donna surveys as she advances downstage and launches into her great aria.
For Leventi, the photographs “freeze for eternity the instant before a performance takes place. Viewers are invited to pore over details, to feel the potential energy in a space where it is all just about to happen”.
The majority of these magical arenas follow the shape of a horseshoe, a curvature which seems to work best for opera in terms of both atmosphere and acoustics, even if it causes restricted sightlines at either extreme: this is a model that embraces both audience and performer, binding them closer than the Greek amphitheatre which Wagner defiantly adopted at Bayreuth in the 1870s.
The book opens with one of the most enchanted of all interiors: that of La Fenice in Venice. Fenice is Italian for phoenix – a word that has proved all too apt, since the theatre has twice, in 1836 and 1996, burnt to the ground, only to rise again from its ashes. A rococo confection in pink, red and gold, it’s as exquisitely bijou as a Fabergé egg.
Other Italian opera houses may be larger, grander, more regal – La Scala in Milan being the most historically venerable, San Carlo in Naples the most awesomely noble – but the Fenice remains the most lovable, with Piacenza’s Teatro Municipale a close second.
The Italian horseshoe wasn’t the only method: the French architect Charles Garnier tried something different, reverting in Paris and Monte Carlo to a style that references the aesthetics of Versailles and the stern neo-classicism of Victor Louis’s Grand Théâtre in Bordeaux in aiming to awe rather than charm.
Today, their magnificence seems rather forbiddingly fusty and heavy-handed compared to the airiness and lightness of the Italian model.
The 20th century had its own ideas. The Twenties’ San Francisco and Chicago opera houses democratically prioritised the provision of good sightlines for all, cinema-style, while in Turin Carlo Mollino created a sumptuously austere civic hall illuminated by a dazzling chandelier of 1,762 rods. Leventi gives us a glimpse of the future in Zaha Hadid’s new creation for Guangzhou, in which the auditorium has been compared to “the soft insides of an oyster”.
These are flamboyant statements, but some of the most successful opera houses have made a virtue of intimacy. The audience feels it can lean forward and touch the singers in the paper-thin summer theatre in Drottningholm, outside Stockholm, while the adorable miniature Teatro di Villa Aldrovandi Mazzacorati in Bologna, frescoed with putti and adorned with floral motifs, is more an opera conservatory than an opera house.
Opera by David Leventi is published next month by Damiani