Having worked for one of Scotland’s largest theatre companies for the last four years, I think it’s pretty safe to say that I’ve got a bit of a thing for performance venues. I love the history that comes with theatres. The older and crumblier the better. Whenever I’m visiting a new city one of the first things I like to look into is whether there are any interesting theatres, cinemas and opera houses to explore.
From London’s West End to Broadway, from the Sydney Opera House to Glasgow’s SECC…I think I’ve got a bit of an obsession going on.
You can imagine my excitement then when we decided to add Naples to our Italian travel itinerary in May 2018. The city is home to the Teatro San Carlo, one of the grandest and best-known opera and ballet houses in Europe. It was our list of places to visit before I’d even sorted a hotel.
On our first day in the city, we booked onto a tour of the San Carlo. Booking was surprisingly easy; we just popped along to the theatre box office and bagged ourselves a time slot for 9 Euros each. Although the tours run once every hour, not every tour is in English. We had a little time to kill before our 3pm slot, so we explored the stunning Galleria Umberto, which was just a minutes’ walk from the theatre, and grabbed some rather heavenly seafood pasta at a little street cafe.
Before the tour, we were encouraged to wait in the Opera Cafè Scaturchio. With its white marble floors, high ceiling and grand piano, this would be a gorgeous place to have a coffee and sfogliatella pastry whether you were attending a show or not! I can only imagine how atmospheric it must be to have an interval drink here, with the excited chatter interspersed with the background piano music.
Our tour began in the theatre’s new foyer, and our guide gave us a little introduction to the history of the San Carlo.
The theatre was originally opened in 1737, commissioned by the Bourbon King Charles III of Naples. Built decades before Milan’s La Scala and Venice’s La Fenice, it is officially the oldest continuously active venue for public opera in the world.
The San Carlo was built after Charles III decided that the city’s long-standing Teatro San Bartolomeo (built in 1621) was becoming too small for purpose. The theatre first opened doors on the 4th of November 1737, which just so happened to be the King’s Name Day, hence the name, Teatro San Carlo. Determined to prove that “Mine’s bigger than yours”, Charles was determined that the San Carlo would be a success, both in architectural design, and commercially. Originally, it could house as many as 3,200. Today it holds a more sensible, but still impressive, 1386.
For many years, the San Carlo was considered one of the most successful performance spaces in Europe, famed for its excellent acoustics and beautifully ornate interior. Sadly in 1816, a fire tore through the building, destroying much of its structure. The building went on to be repaired, only to face further turmoil during the second world war, when much of Naples came under fire. Despite its setbacks, the theatre was restored to its former glory and in 2009 underwent £67 million worth of upgrading to include a fancy new air conditioning system and restored decor, as well as a new rehearsal studio.
Today the Teatro San Carlo is a busy, thriving hub of creativity, with an opera season running from January to May, and a ballet season taking place from April to early June.
After delving into the building’s past, it was time to take in the auditorium. Stepping into the stalls, with the imposing sight of 189 gold-trimmed boxes looking down on us, I think it’s fair to say that our group was lost for words. As we gazed around the epic hall, I couldn’t help but wonder how difficult it must be to concentrate on a show without getting distracted by the architecture:
Notice how each box has its own mirror? That’s not to encourage to mid-show preening, but rather so that everyone sitting in this area could have a clear (stroke sneaky) view of the Royal Box at all times if the monarch was present. Naturally, we had to have a shot of the Royal Box.
After getting to grips with the scale of the auditorium, it was on to The Mirror Hall, one of the theatre’s ballrooms. Traditionally, this would have been where royalty and VIPS would gather for interval shmoozing; today, it’s held for special functions and weddings.
The hall was gorgeous, but I’ll not lie, we were also pretty taken with the adjacent corridor, which if you stood beneath its domed ceiling created some pretty entertaining acoustic effects!
A tour of the Teatro San Carlo is an absolute must if you’re in Naples – particularly if you’re not feeling quite flush enough to fork out on an opera ticket while in town. The tours last 45 minutes but are jam-packed with interesting facts and it really is hard to imagine a more stunning building.