SAN CASSIANO RESURGANS Brian Robins on the plans to rebuild the first public opera house
Venice, carnival season, 1637. A new theatre opens in the parish of San Cassiano, not far from the Rialto Bridge, on a site previously occupied by three (or arguably four) theatres built by the Tron family, one of Venice’s great patrician dynasties. Public theatres for the performance of commedia dell’arte in Venice had been a spectacular commercial success for more than half a century, the theatre built by the Tron family in 1580 having heralded a succession of imitators, but the new San Cassiano was not built to stage comedy but opera, thus earning its place in history as the first public opera house anywhere in the world. The opera presented at its opening—the now-lost Andromeda, by the now-forgotten impresario and composer Benedetto Ferrari—also set a precedent for the future with its exceptionally lavish sets and stage effects, which included the hero Perseus flying down from the heavens to rescue the enchained Andromeda.
The immense success of Andromeda spawned not only further operas but also new rival opera houses in Venice and elsewhere in Italy. Opera became an industry. As commercial ventures such theatres came and went, often the victim of financial failure or fire. San Cassiano itself underwent an enlargement in 1767, and managed to survive until 1812, when it was demolished during the French occupation, its unique place in operatic history soon forgotten.
That is on the cusp of change if the plans of the British businessman and musicologist Paul Atkin can be brought to fruition. Atkin’s immensely ambitious idea is nothing less than the rebuilding of the original 1637 San Cassiano as a working, historically informed
■ Paul Atkin, the moving force behind reconstruction of the Teatro San Cassiano opera house with all its stage machinery, preferably on its original site, otherwise one close to it.
I met Atkin to discuss his project and first asked him how such a scheme had come to his mind. ‘I had the idea back in 1999, although it had been formulating in my mind for several years before that. I was at a performance of Julius Caesar at the Globe. I’d studied it at school and seen a modern production and I really hadn’t understood much, certainly not the nuance of the play. In that Globe performance everything suddenly became clear and it occurred to me that what the Globe does for Shakespeare we should be doing for opera—that if we could reconstruct the San Cassiano in Venice, the potential on so many different levels would be endless. There is a real need for a Baroque opera house in Italy. There is no monument or plaque to the
Opera, November 2019