History of the Opera in Venice and of the Malibran theatre
Sometimes we simply attend a theatre without thinking about how many stories lay behind the curtains, never mind if we go to the opera or to listen to a concert or for a ballet show.
Venice is and has always been innovative even in this field.
Paul Atkin – an English musicologist and entrepreneur – would like to restore historically in Venice the San Cassian theatre which was the first one requiring the payment of a ticket to enter.
This would be an amazing result worth of the history of the Serenissima Republic.
Today I would like to write about one of the most important theatres in Venice, perhaps you are already familiar with it.
It reopened a few weeks ago after the lockdown respecting social distances and all the other regulations due to the Covid-19 pandemia.
The San Grisostomo theatre called Malibran and a little bit about the history of the Opera in Venice.
According to the tradition, the first theatre where an opera show in Venice took place was a hidden Palace owned by the Tron family at San Cassian in the neighborhood of San Polo and the opera was named Andromeda by Benedetto Ferrari (a virtuoso tjorba player, this instrument was similar to a lute) and Francesco Manelli, but in the same area there was another theatre sponsored by Alvise Michiel.
Before that there were a few representations in the Villa del Catajo, near Padua (1638), when a group of singers from Rome performed during a tournament about the story of Ermiona and Cadmo.
Everybody paid for a bollettino or admission ticket: noblemen, cittadini, merchants, commoners. Andromeda was based on the skills of singers, dancers and for the sensational scenic inventions.
Even Mantua with Claudio Monteverdi’s Orfeo was an innovative city in the field of music before Venice and it was by then that the first libretto was published (1607).
If you are interested into the history of music instruments, read also what my colleague Loredana Giacomini has written in her post about the museum based in the Conservatory Benedetto Marcello, while Barbara Tasca wrote about the so called Compagnie della Calza in which affiliates were in charge of organizing shows and celebrations and about the Malibran theatre, too.
Some members of the Grimani family from Santa Maria Formosa (we certainly have posts about their Palazzo) answered to the Tron family with the creation of the theatre at San Giovanni e Paolo (1639) and the Teatro Novissimo which was in use only for three seasons. In this last theatre worked Jacopo Tirelli from Fano who emigrated soon to Paris invited by the King and the famous Cardinal Mazzarino. This theatre was not economically sustainable for two reasons: the expenses for sceneries and famous singers and the Turkish war.
Zuanne Grimani financed a second comedy theatre at San Samuele and soon a third theatre named theatre San Grisostomo (1678-79) was inaugurated in a more central location, near Rialto.
It was quickly built in four months. We are talking about the area where Marco Polo – the legendary merchant and explorer in the Fourteenth century – used to live.
The first opera to be represented here was Vespasiano by Giulio Cesare Corradi, while music was written by Carlo Pallavicino.
The artistic director and manager used to be the lawyer Marco Faustini. His brother Giovanni was a poet and libretto writer, he perfectly knew all the soloists who were invited by different courts because they wanted to make a fortune and become famous, but also to smuggle diplomatic secrets.
They kept using the same kind of hall for a century in our theatres: it was a semi-elliptic hall shaped as a horseshoe, the boxes reminded of a honeycomb, in the Italian style. It was considered a building characterized by a great aesthetic value. The chandelier was on display before and after the show: it was four metres tall.
Marco Faustini was an excellent manager, but neverthless he was sacked by Zuan Carlo Grimani.
Zuan Carlo used to welcome famous guests from abroad who were visiting Venice, especially the Grand Duke of Tuscany Ferdinando who abdicated and was himself a music manager, he was the one who discovered the young composer Georg Friedrich Handel. He also financed at his court pages, castrated singers and musicians. He believed in tourism related to music. He enrolled the cembalo specialist from Padua Bartolomeo Cristofori.
Many important visitors from abroad attended this theatre which was a typical example of Venetian luxury and wanted to be trendy in two ways by representing modernity in a classic way and by interpreting in a modern way classical tradition.
The opera was the culmination of Baroque celebrative events in which participants could show off elegance and fast, the participants were prestigious and rich, so that here that they had an outburst of what they called the war of boxes.
It reminds me of Saturday Night’s Fever at the end of the Seventies in the Twentieth Century and it involved all social layers. Many people could have arguments to hire a box for a night or for the season. Members of the same family or even perfect anonymous people could sue each other simply to obtain a box or because somebody else failed to pay. For this the Council of Ten introduced the payment of a certain sum of money due as a guarantee to the box owner and a box became a sort of currency.
Vincenzo Grimani, Zuan Carlo’s brother made an important religious career and he became a Cardinal at the age of 42 years old upon the decision of the pope Pignatelli, known with the name of Innocent XII who did not like music at all.
He lived in Rome and Naples, he was the deputy King of Naples and could access the music archives of the Kingdom. He could invite to Venice many famous music talents from the rest of Europe, so the San Grisostomo theatre became a sort of ramp for them. Before his death Vincenzo Grimani wrote the libretto for the opera Agrippina, whose music was composed by Handel, as mentioned before. This opera was performed twenty -seven times and it was sophisticated and elegant (1709). The composer was carried out of the theatre on the attenders’ shoulders, such was the enthusiasm how everybody welcomed this opera.
Another celebrity – the sopranist Carlo Maria Boschi called Farinelli spent six years in Venice. He was born in Puglia, but he lived in Naples, where he studied with Porpora. He became famous as Farinello, as he often performed in the house of an illustrious family named Farina, as reported in his first biography printed in Venice in the year 1784.
In the first half of the Eighteenth Century this theatre hosted the operas by Apostolo Zeno and Pietro Metastasio. They were both official poets in the court of Vienna. Their stories narrated about love, family, friendship, not only about myths.
Jean Jacques Rousseau often attended this theatre and was so delighted during one of the shows, that he fell asleep in the middle of the performance and reported how unforgettable and harmonious it was. He was asked to donate to the orchestra some compositions taken from the Muses galantes and he mentioned the ballet performer Bettina who took part to the show by then with the brilliant orchestra.
Carlo Goldoni worked as a libretto writer for comedies here because the theatre at San Samuele where he was usually working was gutted in a fire and this was generally perceived as a symptom of decadence: at the time comedies were a less noble theatrical genre.
In the second half of the Eighteenth Century a famous mirror specialist named Antonio Codognato proposed a new illumination system for this theatre and the creation of sixty more boxes.
At the end of the Republic the San Grisostomo theatre changed its name into Teatro Civico (Civic Theatre) and in the Nineteenth Century the owner changed again together with its name, in 1819 they built the gallery. In 1834 the theatre was reopened with the name of Emeronittio (the owner was Giovanni Gallo) and a legendary singer performed here: her name was Maria Garcia Malibran (Parigi 1808-Manchester 1836), a superstar in this field. She performed for free in the Sonnambula by Vincenzo Bellini (on April 8th in the year 1835). She used a special gondola when she was in Venice.
Her father was also a singer and he performed in Naples with Gioacchino Rossini’s future wife.
Maria started her career in London thanks to Rossini during an unforgettable soirée attended by all the English noble families in which she sang for the first time the Lament of the Muses in honour of Lord Byron (1824), but it was in Paris that she turned to be the Malibran.
In the second half of the Nineteenth century they had a super famous representation of the Requiem Mass by Giuseppe Verdi with the sceneries made by Pietro Bertoja. The choir coming from the theatre la Scala performed, while at the beginning of the Twentieth century the Cavalleria Rusticana by Mascagni and Zingari by Leoncavallo took place. But at the end of the Nineteenth Century operetta shows were extremely popular here.
Between the years 1913 and 1919 this theatre was completely reconstructed according to the project made by Mario Donghi. It was opened in December 1919 with a representation of Verdi’s Othello.
In recent times I would like to mention the absolute première of the opera Cailles en sarcophagi by Salvatore Sciarrino as a cooperation with the Biennale of Music. It is impossible to forget Carolyn Carlson’s works Undici Onde (Eleven waves) and Underwood (1981) and the shows by Pina Bausch (1983).
The stage was recently restored after the lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemia and completely revisited. My last time at the Malibran before the pandemia was for a ballet dedicated to Peggy Guggenheim and recently at the end of August we celebrated again Peggy Guggenheim on her birthday with Stravinsky’s music and his Histoire du soldat.
Come and see us soon! The Best Venice Guides would like to show you not only the Malibran theatre, but also the other ones and where the Venetians carry on this tradition in contemporary theatre.
We are pleased to astonish you.
Best Venice Guides