“I have so much in my thoughts music, having been in the midst of it all this winter, where there has been ten operas”
Charles Montague, Duke of Manchester and British Ambassador to Venice to the Duchess of Marlborough, March 170
The writer Vernon Lee Paget once observed that “opera emerged out of the songs and scenes of the Commedia dell’Arte.” It is therefore not surprising that Venice, with its strong traditions of Carnival and the Commedia, and its penchant for the scenic and spectacular, became one of the earliest and most important opera centres in Europe, boasting in the eighteenth century, no fewer than seven theatres, five of which were opera houses. The most famous of these was the Teatro San Benedetto which was succeeded, after its destruction by fire in 1774, by the Teatro La Fenice which reopened after a fire in 2004. Venetian opera singers such as Faustina were much in demand elsewhere in Europe and when the opera-loving Earl of Manchester returned to London from his embassy in Venice in 1708 he took with him Venetian artists Marco Ricci and Antonio Pellegrini who were employed to paint the sets for an opera by Scarlatti. In the nineteenth century La Fenice became the venue for the premieres of some of Verdi’s operas including Ermani, which was staged during the Carnival season, Attila, Rigoletto and La Traviata and later Stravinsky, who is buried on the Venetian island of San Michele, premiered his Rake’s Progress in the City and Wagner completed there the second act of Tristan und Isolde.
Visitors such commented on the fact that the members of the audience we as much part of the play as the players. Through the course of the drama they gossiped, laughed, even gambled; they moved from box to box in search of conversation and entertainment. At the opera, not husbands but cicisbei were the actual partners of married women; they, rather than their husbands, escorted women to festivities and sat with them in the opera box as their devoted servants.