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Teatro Comunale Bologna
Bologna City | Attractions | Theatres
In the second half of the eighteenth century, Bologna was a European centre of excellence for the study and performance of music, on a par with London and Leipzig, Venice and Paris.
The great castrato Farinelli, now advanced in years, had settled here in 1761.
Another prestigious musical resident was Father Giovanni Battista Martini, Europe’s most celebrated musicologist and teacher of composition. It was Martini’s reputation that drew the 14-year-old Mozart and his father Leopold to the city, as well as English musicologist Charles Burney, who was keen to consult Father Martini’s unrivalled 17,000-volume library of musical texts for the monumental History of Music that he would eventually publish in 1776.
It was out of this extraordinary musical firmament that Bologna’s Teatro Comunale was born. Inaugurated in 1763 with the world premiere of Gluck’s The Triumph of Clelia, this is the oldest existing opera house in Italy after Naples’ San Carlo. It is also, more significantly, the first publicly funded opera house anywhere in the world. Bologna was not a court city, but a city of scholars and merchants, and its residents were fully-fledged stakeholders in its musical scene.
It’s true that 35 of the theatre’s 99 boxes were assigned to the noble families who helped to raise the money for the project, but uniquely in Italy, they were granted only the right to rent the boxes “in perpetuity”, not outright ownership.
The impatient citizens’ desire to start using the theatre, coupled with a shortfall in funding, meant that architect Antonio Galli Bibiena’s ambitious project, with its bell-shaped auditorium and trompe l’oeil ceiling of clouds and sky, was only half complete when the curtain rose on Gluck’s opera in 1763. It would take over two centuries for the opera house to reach its present finished state; the façade was not added until the 1930s, and only in 1981 was the ad hoc stage machinery and backstage area given a thorough overhaul.
In the nineteenth century, the Comunale built a reputation as one of Italy’s more adventurous opera theatres, hosting most of the Italian premieres of Wagner’s operas, at a time when Wagner was considered a risky, avant-garde gamble. It also has a long association with Rossini, and has welcomed conductors from Gaetano Donizetti to Arturo Toscanini and singers of the calibre of Enrico Caruso and Luciano Pavarotti.
The Teatro Comunale is currently directed by Francesco Ernani, an experienced and respected figure on the European opera scene, who has worked in opera theatre administration for forty years since landing the post of administrative director of Verona’s prestigious Arena in 1971. Subsequent jobs have taken him from Milan’s La Scala back to Verona (this time as director), and on to opera theatres in Genoa, Florence, Rome and Catania.
Ernani’s tenure in Bologna comes at a difficult time for opera in Italy: as a supposedly ‘elitist’ art form, it’s a soft target for cash-strapped national and regional governments faced with the need to make cuts in arts funding.
Known for pulling off the miracle of turning around the Teatro di Opera di Roma from notorious loss-leader to model of financial efficiency during his 1999-2009 tenure, Ernani is battling in tough circumstances to do the same for Bologna – a task not made easier by the fact that Italy has reduced its arts spending to 0.23% of the national budget, and is still without a coherent public arts strategy, getting by instead on a series of stop-gap measures and public-private collaborations.
Article By Lee Marshall
Photographs by Massimo Listri
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