“There is nothing in all Europe, I won’t say comparable to this theatre, but which gives the slightest idea of what it is like…, it dazzles the eyes, it enraptures the soul.”
Inaugurated in the year 1737 by the Bourbon King Charles III of Naples, on the day of his naming ceremony, the Teatro di San Carlo became Italy’s oldest and one of the largest opera houses. Neighbouring to the Piazza del Plebiscito and connected to the Royal Palace, designed by Giovanni Antonio Medrano, a military architect, and the former director of San Bartolomeo, Angelo Carasale was this quaint piece of architecture.
King Charles III of Spain ruled Naples and Sicily as Charles of Bourbon from 1734 to 1759. Auld lang syne, the Teatro San Bartolomeo was an opera house of the 17th Century which was needed to let go off. Since art was seen as a gift to the masses, the King commissioned a novel, august opera house which came to be known as Teatro di San Carlo.
1737: The Construction
Built at an expense of 75,000 ducats, this horseshoe-shaped auditorium has been long in the tooth. Capable of accommodating almost 1739 seats, this grand house additionally incorporated a royal box for ten people. These seats were arranged in six tiers and 184 boxes in a hall that was 28.6 meters long and 22.5 meters wide. Lastly, because of its standing room, Teatro di San Carlo could hold a booming posse of over 3000 people.
The Royal Opera House was a classic example of the Italian Neoclassical Architecture. Epitomized by the grandeur of scale because of its six-foot-high bollards, Lucallan blue upholstery and golden panoplies adorned the opera house. Gardens and heads relieve its herculean rustication on the lower levels whereas a series of reliefs signifying music and poetry appear on the upper levels.
Like chalk and cheese, elegant Ionic colonnades shield the large windows of the salon above the balcony. The opera house had three staircases leading to a vestibule which then, ran along the whole front of the house.
1810: Changes made by King Joachim
Since the opera house lacked a remarkable facade, one of the steps taken by Napoleon’s General, Joachim Murat while sparing no effort to gain acclamation from his hoi polloi, was the competition held to make changes in Teatro di San Carlo.
As his design was unambiguously planned, ticking off the King’s favourite-Italian spectacle divulged in French revolutionary terms, Antonio Niccolini won the competition. Niccolini made changes in the facade of the opera house and added an arched portico encrusted with classical motifs dividing it horizontally. While the upper zone was a long colonnade of fourteen Ionic columns, the lower embodied five enormous rusticated arches. There was a wall panel of relief sculpture entailing above these arches.
1816: La Fenice in Venice (Fire destructs Teatro di San Carlo)
It had to be on the fateful day of February thirteenth 1816, when a fire broke out in the light of a dress rehearsal for a ballet performance. Like an arrow from the bow, the flames quickly destroyed a large part of the building. The external walls were the only remains that were unaffected because of the fire.
1817: King Ferdinand IV rebuilds the opera house:
Son of King Charles III, King Ferdinand IV commanded to rebuild the opera house within a span of ten months by using the services of Antonio Niccolini. As a sign of respect towards Medrano’s plans, Niccolini retained the traditional horseshoe-shaped auditorium.
The hall had dimensions similar to that of the old one. It also had the 184 boxes arranged in six tiers and a royal one as well. The stage was extended. (33.1 m x 34.4 m). Niccolini mended the inside of the bas-relief portraying “Time and the Hour”. The central frescoed ceiling was embellished by Giuseppe Cammarano with a painting of Apollo presenting to Minerva the greatest poets of the world.
Under Niccolini, his son Fausto, and Francesco Maria del Giudice, the opera house was refurbished during which the interiors incorporated the altered traditional colours-golden and red in the year 1844.
During 1872, Verdi suggested the construction of an orchestra pit. Apart from this, the installation of electricity in 1890, leading to the abolition of the central chandelier and the fabrication of a new foyer, the theatre went through no monumental changes.
At the time of World War II, Teatro di San Carlo was damaged by bombs. Peter Francis of the Royal Artillery arranged for repairs of the knackered foyer after the liberation of Naples in October 1943.
At the start of the 21st Century, the opera house began to archaize because of its bygone stage machinery. As a response, over six months in 2008 and 2009, the Campania Regional Government capitalized a €67 million renovation which comprised the construction of a new rehearsal hall and revamping of the decor.
Having a volume of nearly 14,000 m3 without including a 2.3 m deep air space above the canvas by Cammarano, the volume of the stage house is about 27,000 m3. The orchestra pit which can be closed fully to extend the stage floor has an average transverse length of 15.8 m and a width along the centreline, from the stage to the railing, of 7.5 m. It can be given a variable overhung for opera or ballet performance.
Back in the day, when accurate scientific instruments were not available, ear trained acousticians used to sense acoustic characters of a room. That was done by listening to the response of the enclosure to a hand clap.
However, due to the advancement in modern technologies, the system of impulse response is used, which allows capturing of an ‘acoustic signature.’ The study revealed that Teatro di San Carlo had acoustic characters similar to those of colossal opera houses of Italian style. E.g. La Scala in Milan.