The San Carlo Opera House
This is a brief history of the great Teatro di San Carlo in Naples, second only to la Scala in Milan as one of the wor1d’s greatest Opera Houses. It was in 1737 that King Charles III, a Bourbon, fol1owing the destruction of the St. Bartolemio Theatre by fire, commissioned Giovanni Medrano, a Brigadier in the Army to prepare designs for a great new Theatre, the execution of these designs being entrusted to Angelo Carasale, famous at that time as an architect. Carasale chose a site for the new Theatre next to the Royal Palace, and building commenced in March 1737. Two hundred and ninety days later, in October, the new Theatre was completed and named after its Founder.
On November 4th, the Theatre was officially opened by the King who attended a gala performance of a new - and destined unimportant - Opera named Achilles in Scirro by Pietro Metastano and Domernico Scarro; a work subsequently hooted off the stages of almost every Opera House in Europe. The King praised Carasale highly for his workmanship, his only comment being that as the wall of the Theatre touched that of the Royal Palace there should have been a communicating corridor for the benefit of the Royal Family. Carasale constructed such a corridor between the First and Fourth Acts of the Opera, and this is reported to have pleased the King more than all the pomp and magnificence of the Opening Ceremony.
The interior of the Opera House was renewed forty years later by Nicolini. On February 13th 1816, when the season was at its height, someone left a lighted candle in the Theatre and the building was gutted by fire. King Ferdinand I entrusted Nicolini with the reconstruction who completed the job (with the energy of Carasale) in seven months, which included forty days clearing away the debris of the fire. The entrance from the Piazza S. Ferdinande was constructed in 1844 by order of King Ferdinande II.
At the dawn of Fascism on October 26th 1922, Benito Mussoini used the stage of the San Carlo to deliver his speech on the question of Monarchy or Republic? followed shortly after by the march on Rome.
In 1937, the Foyer and Smoking Lounges were added to the Theatre, together with renovation and rebuilding of the artistes dressing rooms and the addition of comfortable rest rooms for the Orchestra and Ballet. In the following year the visit of Adolf Hitler was celebrated by a Gala Opera Season.
The most recent structural changes took place in the Autumn of 1941 when the stage was «cut back» increasing the seating capacity in the Orchestra Stalls to seven hundred persons. This together with six floors of thirty boxes and the large Royal Box allows approximately two thousand people to attend a single performance. The Fascist Regime unsuccessfully tried to dictate Operatic taste in Italy. The Government would not support the popular Operas and the people would not support the new Operas by Fascist composers such as Adriano Lualdi and Giuseppe Mule that the Government sponsored and wanted them to hear. The Italian may be submissive to his Government but when it comes to Opera he is outspoken and critical.
From the first Opera witnessed by Charles III, the San Carlo Season was attended not only by the Italian Royal Family but by the Royal Families of all Europe, and they have heard the greatest of all the artists including Patti, Bellinciani, Idalgo, the Barientos, Stagno, De Lucia, Caruso, Gigli and the Russian, Fedor Chaliapin. At the San Carlo the curtain rang down for the last time in the summer of 1942 on a performance of Verdi's «Il Trovatore» the last Opera heard in Naples before the city fell to the Allies
On October 1st 1943 the Allies marched into Naples and early in November Lieut. (now Capt.) F. P. Francis, R.A., suggested opening the San Carlo Opera House and was told to go ahead. The Germans during their occupation had not used the Opera House and when Capt. Francis visited the Theatre on November 7th and opened the doors for the first time for over a year, a tragic sight met his eyes. In his own words «My heart sank - the scene was amazing».
Bomb damage had blasted the Foyer that runs the whole length of the Theatre, and the Royal Retiring Rooms above the foyer were shattered. The stage ‘flys' and counter-weight mechanism had all received damage, there were no curtains or scenery on the stage, only the safety curtain and a mass of wires. Luckily the main curtain had been stored in a safe place. Many of the boxes on the sixth floor were unusable. All the dressing rooms had been hit, the scenery and paint shop, the costume and wardrobe stores were beyond repair. The auditorium and boxes were thick with rubbish and filth and the red plush seats were piled high at the back of the Theatre. The only things left standing were the music stands in the vast orchestra pit and these only because they were fixed to the floor.
However Capt. Francis decided he could open the Theatre - he had no idea with what - on the following Monday! A firm of local contractors cleared the Theatre, the front part of the stage was made fit for use and a few of the shattered dressing room were repaired, supplemented by some hastily built plywood cabins in the wings.
The initial pcolicy was to get shows going as quickly as possible, no matter what they were or where they were presented. In a week the Theatre was cleared and able to house productions again.
On Sunday November 14th all was ready for the opening on the following day. General Sir Ronald Adam, Bart., K.C.B., D.S.O., O.B.E., the Adjutant General, had consented to open the Theatre at 1430 hours on the Monday. A breakdown in the electricity supply threatened to mar the whole proceedings but at 1425 the lights came on again, at the exact time at which the General arrived. The Theatre was officially opened at 1440 and at five past three the curtain went up on the first performance, not with the grandeur of the first opening over two hundred years ago, but on an Italian Revue called «So this is Naples», complete, as one Ameri~an reporter put it, «with Italian dancers wearing brassieres and G. Strings, an Italian band playing the latest American popular successes in swingtime, and an Italian tenor singing «Come back to Sorrento». ».
Sacrilege you say - perhaps, but the Theatre was alive again and while this Revue, followed by the R.A.F's «Flying High» and an Allied show called «The Road to Rome», were being presented, the time was not being wasted in preparations for making the San Carlo again the home of good music and Opera. The Revues were just cover to fill the Theatre with entertainment-starved troops, whilst Naples was scoured for members of the old Symphony Orchestra and Opera Company. Senor Franco Patane, one of Italy's leading conductors was contacted, and the now famous San Carlo Symphony Orchestra, with over sixty musicians gave its first performance with Pina Esca, soprano, and Ettore Ponno, tenor, on Sunday November 21st.
The intention was to have Symphony Concerts once a week, every Sunday, but five hours after the announcement of the first.concert the entire house of two thousand seats had been sold, and instead of giving one concert in their first week the Orchestra gave three.
This was the beginning. Before the Opera Season could commence, repairs and rehearsals were necessary and completely new settings were designed, painted and built in the Theatre's workshops by Mario Cristini, the scenic artist, and Antonio di Scala, the stage manager. While this was going on further entertaiment of a different nature was presented for the troops. The Band of the Royal Tank Regiment appeared with Nat Gonella, the Irish Guards Band gave concerts as did Waldini and his Orchestra. On Christmas Evening Humphrey Bogart and a small company appeared, and during the Christmas Day Concert the San Carlo was included in the B.B,C's 'Round the World' Broadcast, following which the King's speech was relayed in the Theatre.
On Sunday December 26th the Opera Season opened with «La Boheme». Since the opening on November 15th 1943, the Opera Hcuse has only been closed for fourteen days for cleaning and rehearsals. Symphony Concerts were given three times a week from that date until Christmas Day and since the Opera Season started, have continued on every Sunday evening with increasing popularity. On January 18th Capt. Francis had to return to his Unit and his place was taken by Capt. B. Grayson, R. A. S. C. who has remained there, to the present time.
Opera has played continuously except for two weeks in April when the Theatre accomodated, the Irving Berlin show «This is the Army ~. It is enough to say the «House Full boards have been displayed for seventy-five per cent of the performances.
It would leave this record incomplete if I did not mention some of the celebrities who have appeared as Guest Artists during the past year. In December Paola Spagnola, the twelve year old pianist who prior to the war gave a series of concerts in New York, gave an impressive recital. Last January, Ponishnoff gave two recitals and played Tchaikowsky's Piano Concerto No.1 with the Symphony Qrchestra, Jasha Heifetz gave a recital, Lance Dossor has appeared and last July there was an unforgettable evening when that brightest of stars in the Operatic Constellation, Miss Lily Pons, sang accompanied by the Symphony Orchestra conducted by Andre Kostelanetz. Since then John Barbirolli has conducted the San Carlo Symphony Orchestra, and there' is every hope that further celebrities will appear in the near future.
The policy has always been to give those artists in the services a chance to appear and the following are amongst the Allied artists who have appeared during the year :-Lt. John Allen, Lt. A. Royalton Kisch, F/Lt. J. Robertson, Lt. H. Joachim, Pte. L. Goldstein, Cpl. R. Lawrence and Cpl. Z. S. Skubikowski as conductors, Mr. C. Peloquin, Lt. Lance Dossor, Lt. Col. John A Warner and Pte. R. Carpenter, pianoforte, Capt. A. O. English and J. Geanokopolos, violin, Lt. R. Adkins, R.N.V.R. (baritone), Darrel Rathbun (baritone), Capt. John Schwarzwalder (baritone), R. Gervasio (tenor), Lt. R. Spiro, (baritone), Cpl. Cragg Sinkinson (tenor), and William Wahlert (bass). Our thanks are due to the above for giving up their spare time to entertain the troops.
Here then is the answer, without a doubt, to all those who say, «the troops do not want to hear good music». The Military population in Naples is constantly changing, so it is not the same audience that packs the San Carlo Theatre month in month out, neither do these audiences hear the Operas merely because, like climbing Vesuvius or visiting Pompeii, it is «the thing to do» when you are in Naples.
Since the Opera House opened its doors again in November 1943 over four hundred and eighty thousand men and women of the United Nations have passed through them. In addition many troops listen regularly to the operas which are broadcast three or four times each week direct from the Theatre over Radio Naples, with a special commentary in English by Capt. P. W. A. Moyes. The Allies have added a unique chapter to the history of this great Theatre.
K. G. Cleveland. Lieut.R.A.