The Malibran and Malibran: the theatre and the singer
My passion for anything theatrical runs deep…and Venice, city of theatre by nature, is a never-ending source of curiosities and tales which I try to share with those who are keen to discover and rediscover my city. On this occasion, I’d like to take you on a brief trip across the history of the Malibran Theatre and of the extraordinary singer who gave it its name in 19th century, Maria de la Felicidad Malibran.
It was 1678, Carnival time, when the Theatre San Giovanni Grisostomo was born, because that was its name originally. In the Cannaregio area, nearby the church of San Giovanni Grisostomo and not too far from the Rialto Bridge, the building was erected where once stood Ca’ Milion, home to Marco Polo and his family, with annexed ‘fondaci’ (Venetian warehouses), which had burned down a century earlier. It was the third theatre of the Grimani family of Santa Maria Formosa, who already owned the ones at San Samuele and San Giovanni e Paolo. In March 1683, the magazine “Mercure Galant” described the San Giovanni Grisostomo “the biggest, most beautiful and richest theatre in town”, and since its early beginnings it established itself because of its prestige. It was a privileged place, sought after by esteemed ambassadors and travelers as well as demanding clients who spent their Venetian nights going from stage to stage.
San Giovanni Grisostomo was designed by Tommaso Bezzi, known as Lo Stucchino, who was an architect, painter and machine engineer, employed by the Grimani. It was inaugurated with Vespasiano by Giulio Cesare Corradi with music by Carlo Pallavicino. Thanks to the important relations the owners entertained internationally, at the beginning of the 18th century this theatre hosted the premieres of George Friedrich Händel and Alessandro Scarlatti, and distinguished itself from the other theatres in town for the beautiful dances that took place during the breaks between opera acts. Until the mid-18th century, it was the ideal stage for the melodramas of Apostolo Zeno and Pietro Metastasio. In 1751 the Grimani decided to open a new elegant theatre, the San Benedetto, which marked the start of San Giovanni Grisostomo’s temporary decline.
At the fall of the Republic, it became a City Theatre. In the 1800’s, however, thanks to its new owners, it returned to its old glory! And it also changed name! So, what happened? Giovanni Gallo, the owner, managed to employ Maria de la Felicidad Malibran, the most famous singer of the age…
“Oh, what a marvellous creature! She has surpassed all her colleagues for her truly disconcerting musical genius… for the variety of her erudition and for her fiery temperament… she knew the most diverse languages… she could draw, style hair, embroider, and she even created her own costumes; but above all she knew how to write…” This is how Gioacchino Rossini remembered her. “Malibran is not beautiful, she is not ugly… her face is exquisitely long… her eyes big and troubled”, said Luigi Pedrazzi. French by birth, Spanish by blood, and known universally as Malibran, Maria Felicita Garcia, was certainly a living legend, a woman able to carry a crowd with her presence alone, and above all an artist for whom theatre directors were keen to spend enormous sums for. Her arrival in Venice was a huge event! At the time, the San Giovanni Grisostomo – which was called the “Emeronittio” being open both day and night – was run down and in need of renovation and of a fresh start. Which is why Giovanni Gallo went all out, he invited Malibran to perform in his theatre, and she not only accepted his invitation, but refused any compensation. She opened in a performance of the Sonnambula by Vincenzo Bellini. It was nothing short of a triumph, she was called back to the proscenium 35 times, “after which I lost count”. It was April 8th 1835, and from that night on the theatre became known as The Malibran. The diva was known for her generosity, both in her charitable gestures and in the way she selflessly lavished her public with her art. An exceptional vocalist, both in opera singing and in more sacred songs, she was also a great dramatic actress. Malibran died in 1836, she was only 28.
Malibran introduced something very new in Venice: “I have a gondola which I have had painted grey on the outside, with golden and silk nailheads and refinements; the gondolier wears a scarlet jacket… the gondola’s interior is also scarlet, with blue curtains. This is so that when I pass through everyone know it’s me…”
Many celebrity figures at the Malibran Theatre
It has been home to some of the most famous composers, such as Händel and Scarlatti, but also Tommaso Albinoni, Baldassare Galuppi, Johann Adolf Hasse and his companion, soprano Faustina Bordoni Hasse; and actors such as Eleonora Duse; a young Carlo Goldoni was here “theatre poet”. In recent years, I like to remember dance stars like Carolyn Carlson and the shows of Pina Bausch, some of which premiered here in Italy.
The Malibran between late 19th century and the present day
At the end of the 1800’s, the Malibran was put to auction and after thorough renovation, it was reopened and used as a picture house. In 1992, the City Council of Venice bought it and restructured it. With a 900 seat capacity, a magnificent curtain created by Giuseppe Cherubini, who also decorated the splendid ceiling, this theatre has had a long life, never interrupted and with a varied repertoire, from operettas to pantomimes to circus shows, preserving and at the same time innovating those genres which it has been home to.
If I was able to instil a little curiosity, I wish this piece to be only a starting point: theatrical and musical itineraries, filled with celebrated men and women who with their talent enriched the history of Venice, and not only hers…