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Naples Opera House, Teatro San Carlo

The Naples Opera House is sometimes overshadowed by the more well-known Italian opera houses of La Scala Milan or La Fenice Venice, but in its heyday it was considered the capital of European Opera!

The Naples Opera House, or as it is called locally the Teatro San Carlo, was built in the reign of Charles III. Charles was a Spanish Duke of the Bourbon Dynasty who conquered Naples and Sicily in 1734 becoming King Charles VII of Naples in 1735. Charles understood that he needed to be seen as sophisticated and generous and so commissioned the building of an Opera House as a gift to the people putting the Spanish architect Colonel Brigadier Medrano in charge of design and Angelo Carsale in construction and decoration.

The Teatro Sal Carlo opened on November 4th 1737, the Kings name day, making this theatre older than La Scala Opera House and the Venice Opera House, and it is claimed it is the oldest continuously active venue for opera in the world (though there are times when it was closed for renovation so we can see how this claim could be challenged!).

In its day it was unique as it was the very first horseshoe shaped theatre, which of course became common in later years. At that time it was the biggest Opera House in the world with 6 tiers of 184 boxes in each tier and a large royal box in the center. That created 1,379 seats which together with the standing room positions took the Naples opera house capacity to over 3,000 people! The decoration was heavily gold with blue upholstery (the colours of the Bourbon dynasty), and it is said that the lack of dividing curtains was so that the King could keep a watchful eye on all!

The first performance was Achilles in Sciro created by the Italian composers Metastasio and Sarro. As was custom in those days the role of Achilles was played by a woman, Vittoria Tesi, the opera also featured soprano Anna Peruzzi, and the tenor Angelo Amorevoli. The performances of the first year heavily focused dance numbers as was liked by the King and featured famous castrati.

In 1809 Barbaia was appointed manager of the Royal Naples Opera House and remained in charge until 1841, creating original and dazzling productions which attracted many famous singers to the Naples Opera building its strong reputation. Sadly in February 1816 a dress rehearsal was interrupted by a fire which spread quickly closing the Teatro san Carlo for 10 months, but it reopened in January 1817 with the German Composer Mayr’s Opera Il Sogno di Partenope.

Further changes through its history included a renovation in 1844 where it took on the now familiar red and gold look, the addition of a Orchestra pit in 1872 as recommended by Verdi, and electricity in 1890. The theatre was damaged during the Second World War but reopened in October after Naples was liberated in 1943 with a low key musical revue. Musicians flocked to the Naples Opera House when they heard it was open and in December 1943 La Boheme was performed.

In 2008/9 €67 Million was spent updating and refurbishing this grand old dame and it re-opened on 27th January 2010 with Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito, on the 254th anniversary of the composer’s birth.

Many of the well-known composers were linked to the Naples Opera House such as Rossini (Otello), Donizetti (Lucia di Lammermoor), Verdi (Louisa Miller) who were all House Composers or Musical Directors. In later days Puccini and Strauss also influenced the financial viability of the Teatro San Carlo by having their compositions performed in their day there and so expanding the repertoire.

However not all supported the theatre. Caruso for example refused to perform ever again in Naples after he was booed by the audience during a performance of L’elisir d’armore in 1901.

At its peak the Naples Opera House was considered the capital of European music, even with foreign composers such as Haydn, Bach and Gluck considering the performance of their compositions at the Teatro San Carlo as the goal of their Career. Similarly the most prominent singers aimed and succeeded at performing in the Naples opera. These included La Cocchetta, the renowned castrati Manzuoli, Caffarelli, Farinelli, Gizziello and Velluti.

However the unification of Italy in 1861led to power and wealth moving northwards to La Scala Milan and the Naples Teatro San Carlo lost its position as the musical centre of Italy.

Nowadays the programme has a schedule that runs from January to October (except August) tending to focus on the more well-known Operas such as Tosca, La Rodine, Die Zauberflote, Aida and Carmen. It makes a super addition to a stay in Naples where we would recommend you visit the superb Archaeological Museum featuring stunning mosaics from Pompeii and Herculaneum or as a fitting extension to an Amalfi Holiday before you fly home. Take a look at our Naples Opera Breaks.

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