Opera at the Teatro San Carlo di Napoli

Renata Tebaldi sings La bohème: Sì, mi chiamano Mimì

Front of the San Carlo

The heart of Italian opera beats neither in Milan nor in Verona. It beats in Naples. The opera house of Naples, the Teatro di San Carlo, is one of the oldest opera houses on Italian soil – and it was and still is the one with the largest auditorium. The operagoers of Naples are more passionate and critical than in any other place in Italy. That made and makes the Teatro di San Carlo a unique arena of unusually thrilling performances. It's Italy's most exciting opera house.  

·         Naples and opera in the 18th century

·         Teatro di San Carlo

·         The Neapolitans and their theatre

·         San Carlo in the era of the record

·       Naples and opera in the 18th century

San Carlo interiorNaples was one of the most important, most modern and largest cities of the Italian settecento. The fruitful influence of Frederick II had given Naples a first university already in 1224. Soon, Naples became the cultural and intellectual centre of southern Italy. By 1800, the city had about 500,000 inhabitants (Rome had 170,000) and was one of the largest in Europe after London and Paris.

The world’s first public opera house was opened in 1637 in Venice (Teatro di San Cassiano), built by a family of Venetian nobles – only 37 years after the creation of the world’s first opera, Jacopo Peri’s L’Euridice. The San Cassiano was a relatively small theatre, and the number of minor opera houses in Venice grew as opera became more and more popular. By the end of the 17th century, Venice had not less than 11 opera houses. But the popularity of opera in Italy spread to a second centre that would soon become the capital of the operatic world: Naples.

By 1700, Naples developed an own operatic school, a new style of composing and performing. A stronger preference for the music ("more music, less text") was the main feature of the aesthetics of Neapolitan opera. If the music was more important, it was only logical that also the soloists and their vocal ability would take centre stage even more than before. Arias became more important than recitatives, and the so-called aria con dacapo (following the A-B-A schema) was soon established and became a model for many composers. Vocal ensembles and the grand finale were also innovations of the Neapolitan school. It can, as Leo Riemens pointed out, "hardly have been pure coincidence that induced Lorenzo da Ponte to set the action of 'Così fan tutte' in... Naples!"

The libretto and its quality was not anymore a premise for the quality of the opera. For the Neapolitan school, music and vocal splendour played the major role. The music-opera was born. The most important composers of the new style were Alessandro Scarlatti and Giovanni Battista Pergolesi. One of the most successful composers of the Neapolitan opera buffa, Francesco Provenzale, “le Dieu du genre bouffon” (Laborde), is unfortunately forgotten today.

Naples had, like Venice, a number of small opera houses of which the Teatro di San Bartolomeo was the oldest. Most opera houses were, just like the San Bartolomeo, named after the nearest church. But in 1737, exactly hundred years after the opening of the world's first public opera house, the Teatro di San Carlo superseded all minor houses. It was the time of Kant, Hume, Voltaire, Rousseau, Händel, Haydn, Bach, Vico, Montesquieu and Vivaldi.



·       Teatro di San Carlo

Interior of San CarloThe new theatre was named after Carlo Borromeo (1538–1584), cardinal in Milan and a saint since 1610, who was idolised for his selfless service in the struggle against Black Death. The Teatro di San Carlo certainly lived up to the great saint’s name: with a total capacity of 3500 seats, it outdid everything known by then. No other opera house in Italy was and is as large as the auditorium of the San Carlo: La Scala (opened in 1778) seats 2800, the Teatro dell'Opera in Rome 1600.

The San Carlo was built under the aegis of Bourbon king Carlo III within only six months and opened on November 4, 1737 (the feast day of the king's patron saint) with the Sarro opera Achille in Sciro. The cast included Angelo Amorevoli, Anna Peruzzi and Vittoria Tesi. The king himself was present, and the opening performance was preceded by a festive cantata. The English music historian Charles Burney said that San Carlo "as a spectacle surpasses all that poetry or romance have painted." Abel Poisson, brother of Madame de Pompadour and future count of Marigny, published sketches of the San Carlo in the book Parallèle des plans des plus belles salles de spectacle d'Italie et de France. And later Stendhal wrote about the San Carlo:  

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...

The interior of the San Carlo consists in a horseshoe-shaped auditorium that achieves its enormous seating capacity more by height than depth. The latter is a hallmark for every good opera house. The proscenium is 33.5 metres wide and 30 metres high. The stage is 34.5 metres deep. The acoustics of the San Carlo are legendary, and it has been said that the master builder of the San Carlo, Giovanni Antonio Medrano, tried to imitate the construction of other halls with good sound.

The San Carlo soon became the leading opera house in Italy. Gluck came to Naples in 1752, Johann Christian Bach in 1762. Many masterpieces had their first performance at the San Carlo, among them: Elisabetta regina d'Inghilterra (1815), La gazzetta, Armida (1817), Mosè in Egitto, Ricciardo e Zoraide (1818), Ermione, La donna del lago (1819), Maometto Secondo (1820) and Zelmira (1822) by Rossini (who regarded himself as the San Carlo's house composer), Maria Stuarda (1834), Roberto Devereux (1837), Poliuto (1838), Lucia di Lammermoor (1835) and thirteen other operas by Donizetti, Oberto (1841), Alzira (1845) and Luisa Miller (1849) by Giuseppe Verdi, Francesca da Rimini (1921) by Riccardo Zandonai, Fedra (1924) by Ildebrando Pizzetti and so on.

The great singers of the Rossini era were the tenors Andrea Nozzari, Giovanni David and Manuel García, Maria Malibran, Giuditta Pasta, Isabella Colbran, Giovanni Battista Rubini, Domenico Donzelli and the French rivals Adolphe Nourrit and Gilbert Duprez.

In 1816, the opera house was destroyed by fire. But it was rebuilt almost at once, within a few months. Further improvements took place in 1844 and resulted in the house that we know today.



·       The Neapolitans and their theatre

As said above, the audience of Naples is the most passionate and critical audience in Italy. Stendhal reported from a performance of Rossini’s Mosè in Egitto on March 5, 1818:  

The machinist of the San Carlo had done incredibly ludicrous things. The front stalls saw the sea raised five or six feet above its shores; the boxes looked straight down into the sea and saw the urchins who made it open at Moses’ command. In Paris this could have passed (I remember having seen, in the first scene of Don Giovanni, September 1823, how mountains threw their shadow on the sky!). But in Naples, where the stage sets are magnificent, the public, accustomed to beauty, refused to accept this absurdity. People laughed with gusto, and their hilarity was so spontaneous that nobody became angry or whistled. The end of the opera was scarcely heard, for everyone kept talking about the admirable introduction.

Again according to Stendhal, on March 7, 1819, the audience stopped a performance of the same opera, hanging over the balconies and standing on the seats, screaming: "Bello! Oh, com'è bello!"

Mark Twain got to know the other side of the public of San Carlo. Twain was in Naples in 1869 and described the audience in his book The Innocents Abroad 

Mark TwainEverybody spoke of the rare sport there was to be. They said the theater would be crammed, because Frezzolini was going to sing. It was said she could not sing well, now, but then the people liked to see her, anyhow. And we went. And every time the woman sang they hissed and laughed – the whole magnificent house – and as soon as she left the stage they called her on again with applause. Once or twice she was encored five and six times in succession, and received with hisses and when she appeared, and discharged with hisses and laughter when she had finished – then instantly encored and insulted again!

And how the high-born knaves enjoyed it! White-kidded gentlemen and ladies laughed till the tears came, and clapped their hands in very ecstasy when that unhappy old woman would come meekly out for the sixth time, with uncomplaining patience, to meet a storm of hisses! It was the cruelest exhibition – the most wanton, the most unfeeling. The singer would have conquered an audience of American rowdies by her brave, unflinching tranquility (for she answered encore after encore, and smiled and bowed pleasantly, and sang the best she possibly could, and went bowing off, through all the jeers and hisses, without ever losing countenance or temper); and surely in any other land than Italy her sex and her helplessness must have been an ample protection to her –she could have needed no other.

Think what a multitude of small souls were crowded into that theater last night. If the manager could have filled his theater with Neapolitan souls alone, without the bodies, he could not have cleared less than ninety millions of dollars. What traits of character must a man have to enable him to help three thousand miscreants to hiss, and jeer, and laugh at one friendless old woman, and shamefully humiliate her? He must have all the vile, mean traits there are. My observation persuades me (I do not like to venture beyond my own personal observation) that the upper classes of Naples possess those traits of character. Otherwise they may be very good people; I cannot say.

Another famous victim of the audience of San Carlo was Enrico Caruso, who was born in Naples in 1873. Caruso began his career in 1895 in Naples, but not at the San Carlo, which was a stage for stars only. Emma Calvé remembered Caruso in 1895: What a marvellous – what an extraordinary – voice. It is a miracle... a diamond of the first water.

After his breakthrough in Milan, Caruso returned to Naples, this time singing Nemorino at the San Carlo during winter season 1901/02. While the audience was relatively friendly, the critics gave him an exceptionally bad reception. One of the reviewers, Silvano Procida, attested him a "fine baritone voice"(!). Caruso swore never to come back to Naples again. He said: "One day I shall return to Naples, because it is the home that I love. But I will not return for singing, only for eating pizza."

Extensive booing, whistling, vulgar gestures (sometimes even by the singers) and fistfights (the infamous story of Franco Corelli running off stage to get his hands on a heckler happened in fact at the San Carlo) occurred regularly. In his nice articles about the San Carlo and Naples, Jeff Matthews tells a long list of anecdotes of which I wish to quote only the most harmless ones:

And when the baritone in Pagliacci delivered the opening line of the opera, a rhetorical question to an on–stage audience assembled for a carnival: "Si può?" ("May I begin?"), someone in the real-life audience at San Carlo shouted "No!" Similarly, a line towards the end of La bohème has the tenor singing, "I can no longer stay." Someone in the upper boxes saw that as a straight line for his own jibe: "So leave!" (from the 1960s)

The San Carlo was soon known as a very tough place to perform. Also the large open-air arena in Naples, the Arena Flegrea, soon got a similar fame. Giulio De Luca built the Arena Flegrea in 1940 in vanguard, fascist style. It seated 6000 people. Operas that were well suited for being performed open-air were staged at the Arena Flegrea: Aida, Madama Butterfly, Turandot and many more.

Listen to the audience not approving of Giacomo Lauri-Volpi’s last high note in Di quella pira:

TROVATORE 1951 Di quella pira

Or another short clip of Aida from the Arena Flegrea, in which Anita Cerquetti, Gian Giacomo Guelfi and maestro Santini get into trouble:

        AIDA 1954 Atto 3

The complete versions of the clips can be found at the end of the article.



·       The San Carlo in the era of the record

The names of singers at the San Carlo in the 20th century form a long list of the crème de la crème in the history of singing: from Gemma Bellincioni, Hariclea Darclée, Angelina Pandolfini, Maria Farneti, Gilda Dalla Rizza (from 1915 to 1931), Ester Mazzoleni (from 1911 to 1925), Toti Dal Monte, Maria Pedrini and Gabriella Besanzoni to Maria Callas, Renata Tebaldi, Virginia Zeani and Raina Kabaivanska. From Fernando De Lucia (from 1885 to 1917), Emilio de Marchi, Francesco Tamagno (who made his last appearance on any stage at the San Carlo in Donizetti’s Poliuto in 1904), Giuseppe Borgatti (the first Andrea Chénier in 1896, appeared in Naples in an Italian version of Wagners Götterdämmerung in 1908), Alessandro Bonci, Giuseppe Anselmi, Eduardo Garbin, Giovanni Martinelli, Tito Schipa, Beniamino Gigli, Aureliano Pertile, Giacomo Lauri-Volpi, Mario Filippeschi, Ramón Vinay, Mario Del Monaco and Gino Penno to Giuseppe Di Stefano and Daniele Barioni. Shaljapin made his last operatic appearance at the San Carlo (in 1935), and practically every famous Italian baritone or bass performed there: Battistini, Ruffo, Stabile, Galeffi, De Angelis, Pinza, Pasero, Rossi-Lemeni, Neri and so on.

Beginning in the late 1940s, performances were recorded at the San Carlo. Those recordings, albeit often in very poor sound quality, are valuable documents not only of many great singers but also of the electrifying atmosphere at the Teatro di San Carlo. The singers tried to deliver top performances, and the audience either celebrated them frenetically or put them down in the way described above. A live recording from San Carlo is therefore not only a vivid document of singing but also a document of the communication between musicians and audience. To do a performance on the stage of the San Carlo without getting booed was and still is an accolade for every opera singer. The sound files prepared for this article do not always testify to great successes but also to disasters – but in any case these are thrilling performances, real live documents full of atmosphere.

·        Renata Tebaldi in La bohème (1951)xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxsssssssxxxxxxxx


    1. Sì, mi chiamano Mimì

    2. Donde lieta uscì

The Bohème of the winter season 1951 came with a fantastic cast, featuring old master Lauri-Volpi and young Tebaldi and Gobbi. Casting a first rate bass like Neri and the great Mascagni baritone Meletti for minor parts shows the abundance of great voices in those times. Tebaldi was clearly the star of the evening. Lauri-Volpi sang his aria in act 1 a half-note transposed but was cheered by he audience nonetheless. He took the "talor del mio forziere" in wonderful pianissimo which was especially charming.

Maestro Santini conducted with verve and inspiration. The second act, interpreted by Santini, is a real gem (including an inventive ending that Puccini would for sure have approved of). This is one of the best performances of La bohème that I have heard.

Source: LP CLS AMRDL 22811. The speed of the recording on the LPs was too slow (about one whole note) and has been corrected. The sound has been slightly restored.

Cast info:

La bohème – San Carlo di Napoli, January 10, 1951

Rodolfo: Giacomo Lauri-Volpi

Mimì: Renata Tebaldi

Marcello: Tito Gobbi

Colline: Giulio Neri

Schaunard: Saturno Meletti

Conductor: Gabriele Santini

·        Ettore Bastianini, Fedora Barbieri and Mario Del Monaco in Carmen (1958)


1. Con voi ber

2. Il fior che avevi a me tu dato

This is one of the few recordings of Bastianini as Escamillo, featuring Barbieri as Carmen and Del Monaco as Don José. The wonderful timbre of Bastianini’s voice is perfect for Escamillo, and also Barbieri delivered an inspired and powerful performance. Del Monaco may be a bit monotonous sometimes, but the dramatic effects he creates (especially in the finale) are very convincing. The high B flat in his aria is held for many seconds, and the audience reacts correspondingly. Also here, the conductor, the orchestra and the choir of the San Carlo played a key role. De Fabritiis’ conducting is massive, reminding of Furtwängler, without being sedate. A special effect is given in Esamillo’s song: the tenors of the choir join the women and sing the high C at the end.

Source: private tape, in-house recording, slightly restored

Cast info:

Carmen – San Carlo di Napoli, January 25, 1958

Carmen: Fedora Barbieri

Don José: Mario Del Monaco

Escamillo: Ettore Bastianini

Micaela: Marcella Pobbe

Conductor: Oliviero De Fabritiis

·        Nicola Rossi-Lemeni in Boris Godunov (1955)

Ho il poter supremo (slightly truncated)

In spite of the poor sound quality a very powerful document of Rossi-Lemeni, whose Boris was acclaimed as "the finest since Shaljapin" at his American debut in San Francisco in 1951. The performance in Naples was sung in Italian, the cast was excellent, and maestro Tullio Serafin conducted the orchestra. Serafin frequently conducted at the San Carlo and was considered the successor of Toscanini as Italy's "grand old man of music".

Source: private tape of a broadcast, restored

Cast info:

Boris Godunov – San Carlo di Napoli, March 23, 1955

Boris: Nicola Rossi-Lemeni

Pimen: Giuseppe Modesti

Dmitrij: Luigi Marini

Marina: Maria Vitali

Conductor: Tullio Serafin

·        Giuseppe Campora in Evgenij Onegin (1954)

Dov'è, dov'è la dolce primavera?

Another excerpt from a Russian opera sung in Italian. The 1954 Onegin came with a cast for a romantic Italian opera, including Giuseppe Campora, Gino Bechi, Leyla Gencer and Oralia Dominguez. Campora was a very good Lenskij, and especially Bechi was able to provide the part of Onegin with a dramatic power that normally is lacking when a lieder singer tackles it. Again, it was Serafin who conducted the performance.

Source: private tape, off the air recording, restored

Cast info:

Evgenij Onegin – San Carlo di Napoli, March 17, 1954

Evgenij Onegin: Gino Bechi

Tatyana: Leyla Gencer

Olga: Oralia Dominguez

Lenskij: Giuseppe Campora

Gremin: Italo Tajo

Conductor: Tullio Serafin

·        Artists getting a bad reception: Santini, Lauri-Volpi                            


1. Aida: Ciel! mio padre!

2. Il trovatore: Di quella pira

Here are the long versions of the short clips above. The excerpt from Aida is from a 1954 performance at the Arena Flegrea, starring Anita Cerquetti as Aida, Giangiacomo Guelfi as Amonasro and Gino Penno as Radames. The conductor of the performance was Gabriele Santini. Both Guelfi and Cerquetti present themselves in great form. The audience applauds frenetically after Guelfi's Dei faraoni tu sei la schiava, and demands an encore of the scene – which maestro Santini does not permit. The audience goes over to booing and whistling.

The Di quella pira with Lauri-Volpi is from a 1951 performance of Il trovatore at the San Carlo, featuring Maria Callas, Cloe Elmo, Paolo Silveri and Tullio Serafin. The booing at the end may refer to Lauri Volpi's transposition of the aria.

Sources: CD Bongiovanni GAO 134 (Aida) and Melodram MEL 26001 (Trovatore)

·        Mario Filippeschi in Guillaume Tell (San Carlo at Drury Lane 1958)


1. Ah Matilde, io t'amo

2. O muto asil ... Corriam, voliam!

A singer who never got any kind of bad reception in Naples was tenor Mario Filippeschi. The clips I have chosen are from a private tape of a 1958 broadcast from the Drury Lane in London, where the Teatro San Carlo gave guest performances. London knew the San Carlo well, because already in 1946 the San Carlo had played at Covent Garden for several weeks, being the first Italian opera troupe to give an entire season abroad.

Filippeschi was very popular in Naples, especially in the role of Arnoldo. Here is a review of Filippeschi's Arnoldo at the San Carlo (1956):

Anche Mario Filippeschi è tornato al San Carlo con giovanile baldanza, in una parte che, se non fosse l'assoluta freschezza dei suoi mezzi vocali, non avrebbe affrontato con tanta vittoriosa disinvoltura. Egli punta tranquillamente sulle cime della terribile tessitura, e vi piazza l'interminabile serie dei do naturali con una sicurezza che non tradisce il minimo sforzo, con una squillante luminosità di timbro. (Alfredo Parente in Il Mattino, April 12, 1956)

The performance of Guglielmo Tell in London featured Gino Bechi, Onelia Fineschi and Vincenzo Bellezza. Filippeschi (who retired three years later) was clearly the star of the evening.

Sources: private tape of a broadcast, restored

Cast info:

Guillaume Tell – Drury Lane Theatre London (Teatro San Carlo on tour), 1958

Guillaume Tell: Gino Bechi

Arnold Melcthal: Mario Filippeschi

Mathilde: Onelia Fineschi

Conductor: Vincenzo Bellezza


Photo credits:
  1. The photo of Cerquetti as Aida at the San Carlo 1954: http://griffeaquitaine.free.fr/cerquetti/htm/photos/portraits/y1954aida-naples.htm
  2. The Carmen photos of Barbieri, Del Monaco and Bastianini, the photos of Campora and of Tebaldi as Mimì: http://www.cs.princeton.edu/~san/
  3. Mark Twain: http://www.library.unr.edu/friends/hallfame/twain.html
  4. The interior of San Carlo: http://www.operanapolitain.com/artdelavoix.htm

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