Helmer Kenneth Branagh has decided to unveil his film adaptation of “The Magic Flute” as a gala event Sept. 7 at Teatro La Fenice, one of the world’s most storied, tragedy-stricken opera houses.
On Jan. 29, 1996, Venice’s jewel-box opera house burned for the second time, causing Luciano Pavarotti to declare: “Today we are like orphans. Venice without La Fenice is like a body without a soul.”
Despite being razed twice, the lore surrounding this renowned opera house has reinforced the soul that the great Italian tenor feared the famed city would lose: La Fenice’s dramatic story has increased its appeal.
The theater’s name means “the phoenix,” a mythical bird that before dying ignites its nest, burns itself to the ground and springs back to life from its own ashes. La Fenice has eerily lived up to this legend.
Construction of the original Teatro La Fenice began in 1789 at its current site on Campo San Fantin when the managing partners of the San Benedetto Theater (also rebuilt after being burned to the ground) split from the owners. The name was adopted as allusion to the company’s survival, and its doors opened in 1792.
La Fenice first burned in 1836. The cause, a suspect “Austrian heater,” set a blaze that lasted three days. In 1837, it was up and running again. But the 1996 blaze was arson, attributed to an electrician who faced fines if unable to complete work contracts on time. Electrician Enrico Carella fled to South America to escape a seven-year prison sentence. His cousin, Massimiliamo Marchetti, served six years.
The 1996 fire produced 150-foot flames that were finally extinguished with the help of helicopters, since the blaze couldn’t be fought conventionally because of the cramped streets and a dredging project, which, in an ironic twist of fate for this canal-lined city, drained water from the waterways surrounding the theater. Onlookers compared the scene to a “fully erupting volcano.”
The restoration of the theater, which premiered five Verdi operas, was originally planned for completion by 1999; yet delays, both legal and logistical, plagued the project — a scandal that is chronicled in John Berendt’s recent bestseller “The City of Falling Angels.”
La Fenice finally reopened Dec. 14, 2003, at a reported cost of $100 million. A Venetian slogan, “Dov’era, com’era” (where it was, as it was), accompanied the restoration of the neoclassical landmark.
In 2004, under Venice Film Festival director Marco Muller’s tutelage, the Biennale used the theater as the awards ceremony venue for the first time.
While Branagh admits that opera is “completely new virgin territory” for him, his capable film adaptations of the Bard undoubtedly helped in bringing Mozart’s masterpiece to the screen.
“In the case of Shakespeare, when performed in a very real way, it becomes utterly contemporary. And I have discovered that is the case with Mozart as well.” Branagh promises a pic “ambitious in scale and visually epic,” with plenty of effects and magic. The director likes the coincidence that La Fenice opened its doors in 1792, the year Mozart died, and considers the screening there “a happy marriage.”
“We want the film to be as filmic and movielike as possible, and at the same time we are not ashamed of its roots in theater and the opera house,” he says.
As for Venice’s resolve to maintain La Fenice, Branagh believes: “It is not just a physical building. It is 200-odd years of love and work. It was one of the earliest theaters built and performed in in Venice. I have a feeling La Fenice is part of the spiritual fabric of the place.”