We all know the fable of the phoenix – the mythical bird which dies engulfed by flames only to be born again in all its splendour.
Let me tell you then about a quasi mythical place in Venice which has died a painful death by fire three times only to rise from its ashes back to its former glory and then some.
Gran Teatro La Fenice stands on a small square in the labyrinth of the Venetian streets. Its white façade juts up towards the sky to which so often it has gone up in flames.
Named after the Phoenix, this world famous theatre and opera house is the perfect representation of the magnificent appearance and the dramatic fate of the mythical bird.
Stepping into its opulent theatre hall is akin to finding yourself in an enchanted forest. Rich gilt ornamentation covers every available surface. Bunches of lights flicker around you. Row upon row of boxes follow the curve of the walls. The ceiling is blue and adorned with lace-like decorations. Right in the middle of it hangs a whimsical crystal chandelier.
You may have come here to see a performance, but the theatre itself steals the show.
I decided to tell you about La Fenice on my blog because, in a city like Venice full with architectural and historical pearls, often it is impossible to see everything there is to experience and savour.
Seduced by the big boys on the tourist trail – the Doge’s Palace and St. Mark’s Basilica – people often realise they have no time left to walk the short distance from St. Mark’s Square and explore La Fenice. Others pass by its unassuming façade and, in the blindingly hot white light of the Venetian summer, miss their chance to discover the rich history and architecture hidden right behind it.
So, as I was to spend last Sunday in Venice, I made La Fenice the first stop on my list, eager to experience its atmosphere once more and to give you a taste for it.
The sun was blazing over Venice, its powerful rays reflected a million times in the water of the myriad canals. Finding it hard to see without the sunglasses, which I had forgotten at home in Vicenza, I gladly walked off the fashionable ‘XXII Marzo’ street teeming with luxury boutiques into the side alley which was so narrow that I could touch the walls of the houses on its opposite sides simply by stretching out my arms.
It was nice and cool there, the sun unable to get through the dense Venetian meshwork of tall houses built right next to one another with no gaps to spare. A bridge over a canal and a few steps down another narrow alley and I found myself on a small square, a veritable sun trap.
La Fenice stood proud right in front of me just the same as I remembered it from my first visit back in 2013. It was quite unfathomable to think that its sprawling body had been most recently destroyed completely in an arson attack in 1996, only to be rebuilt from scratch between 2001 and 2003.
I sought shade on its porch. Big boards announcing the programme for Season 2015 were elegantly perched atop the steps.
The music of Verdi, Rossini, Bellini and several other world famous composers fill the house every night. I remember that back in 2013, when I was in Venice with my then fiance (now husband), we wanted to see an opera at La Fenice, but couldn’t quite spare the couple of hundreds of euros for each ticket. Instead, we visited the theatre during the day, when it is open for tourists against a fee.
Now that we live less than an hour away by train, I guess we can buy tickets for a performance at pre-order rates, but then we need to think about getting a childminder for the night and organise several other details. So, once again it seems like something I need to add to an ever-increasing bucket list of things I would love to do when the time is right.
Last Sunday I was happy to simply visit La Fenice during the day. I bought myself a ticket. It costs 9 euros and an audio guide is included in the price. If you want to take photos or videos you need to pay 3 euros more. Then you will receive a little sticker to wear and you are legit to shoot.
The first things which may surprise you in La Fenice are the chandeliers. They are big and imposing, as you would expect them to be in a place like this, but, interestingly, they are made of crystal drops and beads rather than Murano glass as is the unspoken tradition in Venice.
Still, they fit perfectly the theatre’s interiors – from the grand foyer to the gorgeous ballroom upstairs – and their flickering light emphasises the gilt ornamentation.
Gilt is everywhere in La Fenice. It covers its walls and theatre boxes, it drips from the Imperial loge. It fills your eyes with a thousand reflections and distracts your camera, unsure what to focus on first.
The richest concentration of gilt is in the theatre hall. Even though I had been there before and the memory of its opulence was still fresh in my mind, the sight of it took my breath away as soon as I walked over its threshold.
People were quietly working on the stage getting it ready for that night’s performance. Tourists were roaming around just trying to get to grips with the beauty of the place. And then getting snap happy attempting to take away a glimpse of it.
Right above, the stage a clock was counting the minutes.
Plaster figures watched aloof from where the walls and ceiling met.
Cherubs adorned the panels of the boxes.
And the gentle curve of the row upon row of boxes drew your eyes all the way to the top all the while admiring the skilful beauty of the theatre hall.
Right opposite the stage stood the Imperial box.
If the theatre hall reminded me of an enchanted forest, the Imperial box was like the magical cave in it where mythical creatures would congregate.
To reach the Imperial box I had to go outside of the theatre hall and up a flight of stairs. The simple, even austere appearance of the corridors with the doors leading to the boxes gave my eyes a little break from the gilt extravagance of it all.
In the corridor outside of the Imperial box there is a model of La Fenice giving you an idea of how big the theatre actually is, since it is quite easy to overlook its sprawling body, compressed as it is between other houses and buildings in Venice.
And now for the main event.
The walls of the Imperial box are covered with mirrors thus creating an infinity effect. The reflected lights, gilt, opulent ornamentation are repeated time and time again until they disappear into the mirrored distance.
The effect is so overwhelming that you just need to sit down for a little bit to catch your breath.
It is all so rich and intricate, motifs intertwined, plaster figures looking over you, frescoes on the ceiling. It is like it is too much, but somehow it works just fine without being gaudy, which is quite a fine line to tread, especially here.
At this point I must have gotten a bit too snap happy myself, as the lady who was guarding the Imperial box came to check if I had a photo pass. I showed her my Photo Pass and she was satisfied, but I saw people stealing glances around and then stealing a photo or two, so she was in her right to check if all was legit with me.
Here is the last photo I took in the Imperial box – its ceiling fresco.
It was time to explore the top floor of La Fenice – the place where cocktails are held after performances and where the ballroom can be found, too.
I went up the stairs crowned by yet another splendid crystal chandelier.
With its plain apricot walls the place was much more subdued than the theatre hall. Yet gilt has found its place here too, albeit on a much smaller scale.
There were gilt details on the walls…
… on the back of the chairs…
…and benches came with the most intricate backrests.
The ballroom was lovely and airy with a grand piano on a low stage.
A balcony was running alongside the room right underneath the ceiling.
Its railings were of exquisite ironwork emphasised with gilt detailing.
Mighty pillars supported the ballroom’s walls, all adorned with a lion’s head – the symbol of Venice.
I remembered that when I had been there in 2013 there had been an exhibition about some of the most famous singers who had sung on the stage of La Fenice. I was very happy at the time to spot one of the most illustrious Bulgarian opera singers featured in it.
I went to look for the exhibition half-hoping that it would still be up and I could show you my compatriot.
Unfortunately, the room was empty, the exhibition had been temporary and it was long gone.
I had one last look around, glanced admiringly at the exuberance of it all and slowly walked out into the hot Venetian sun.
When you are in Venice, please, make sure that you have La Fenice on your list of things to do. It is a fabulous piece of architecture, history and music under a blue ceiling reminiscent of a mythical sky.
You can find the detailed history of the theatre at this link. It makes for a riveting reading of passions, music, fire and rebirth.
And I promise to let you know in text and pictures as and when I manage to see a performance in this fabulous place.
Campo San Fantin 1965