The Real Teatro di San Carlo is an opera house in Naples, Italy. It is located adjacent to the central Piazza del Plebiscito, and connected to the Royal Palace. It is one of the oldest continuously active venue for public opera in the world, opening in 1737, only five years after the Manoel Theatre in Malta and decades before both the Milan's La Scala and Venice's La Fenice theatres.
The house once had a seating capacity of 3,285, but nowadays has been reduced to 1386 seats. Given its size, structure and antiquity was the model for the following theatres in Europe.
Commissioned by the Bourbon King Charles VII of Naples (Carlo VII in Italian), Charles wanted to endow Naples with a new and larger theatre to replace the old too-small Teatro San Bartolomeo of 1621, which had served the city well, especially after Scarlatti had moved there in 1682 and had begun to create an important opera centre which existed well into the 1700s.
Thus, the San Carlo was inaugurated on 4 November 1737, the king's name day, with the performance of the opera Domenico Sarro's Achille in Sciro, which was based on the 1736 libretto by Metastasio that had been set to music that year by Antonio Caldara.
The new opera house was designed by Giovanni Antonio Medrano, a military architect, and Angelo Carasale, the former director of the San Bartolomeo. The horseshoe-shaped auditorium is the oldest in the world. It was built at a cost of 75,000 ducats. The hall was 28.6 meters long and 22.5 meters wide, with 184 boxes, including those of proscenium, arranged in six orders, plus a royal box capable of accommodating ten people, for a total of 1,379 seats. Including standing room, the theatre could hold over 3,000 people. Much admired for its architecture, its gold decorations, and the sumptuous blue upholstery (blue and gold being the official colours of the Bourbons), the San Carlo was now the biggest opera house in the world.
In 1809 Domenico Barbaia was appointed manager of the royal opera houses in Naples and remained in charge until 1841. He soon established a reputation for innovative and dazzling productions, which attracted both the public and leading singers to the opera house.
On 13 February 1816 a fire broke out during a dress-rehearsal for a ballet performance and quickly spread to destroy a part of the building. On the orders of King Ferdinand IV, another Bourbon monarch and son of Charles III, who used the services of Antonio Niccolini, Barbaia was able to rebuild the opera house within ten months. It was rebuilt as a traditional horseshoe-shaped auditorium with 1,444 seats, and a proscenium, 33.5m wide and 30m high. The stage was 34.5m deep. Niccolini embellished in the inner of the bas-relief depicting "Time and the Hour".
The central frescoed ceiling painting of Apollo presenting to Minerva the greatest poets of the world was painted by Antonio, Giuseppe e Giovanni Cammarano.
On 12 January 1817, the rebuilt theatre was inaugurated with Johann Simon Mayr's Il sogno di Partenope. In 1844 the opera house was re-decorated under Niccolini, his son Fausto, and Francesco Maria dei Giudice. The main result was the change in appearance of the interior to the now-traditional red and gold-
From 1815 to 1822, Gioachino Rossini was house composer and artistic director of the royal opera houses, including the San Carlo. During this period he wrote ten operas which were Elisabetta, regina d'Inghilterra (1815), La gazzetta, Otello, ossia il Moro di Venezia (1816), Armida (1817), Mosè in Egitto, Ricciardo e Zoraide (1818), Ermione, Bianca e Falliero, Eduardo e Cristina, La donna del lago (1819), Maometto II (1820), and Zelmira (1822). After the composition of Zelmira, Rossini left Naples with Colbran who had previously been the lover of Domenico Barbaia. The couple were married shortly thereafter.
To replace Rossini, Barbaja first signed up Giovanni Pacini and then another rising star of Italian opera, Gaetano Donizetti. As artistic director of the royal opera houses, Donizetti remained in Naples from 1822 until 1838, composing sixteen operas for the theatre, among which Maria Stuarda (1834), Roberto Devereux (1837), Poliuto (1838) and the famous Lucia di Lammermoor (1835), written for soprano Tacchinardi-Persiani and for tenor Duprez.
Vincenzo Bellini, Sicilian by birth, also staged his first work, Bianca e Fernando, at the San Carlo.
Giuseppe Verdi was also associated with the theatre. In 1841, his Oberto Conte di San Bonifacio was performed there and in 1845 he wrote his first opera for the theatre, Alzira; a second, Luisa Miller, followed in 1849. His third should have been Gustavo III, but the censor made such significant changes that it was never performed in that version nor under that title (until a re-created version was given in 2004). It was later performed in Rome with significant revisions to the plot and its location, while the title became Un ballo in maschera.
Apart from the creation of the orchestra pit, suggested by Verdi in 1872, the installation of electricity in 1890, the subsequent abolition of the central chandelier, and the construction of the new foyer and a new wing for dressing rooms, the theatre underwent no substantial changes until repair of the bombing damage in 1943.
During World War II the opera house was damaged by bombs. Following the liberation of Naples in October 1943, Peter Francis of the Royal Artillery organized repairs to the damaged foyer and, three weeks later, reopened the building. The first opera performance was held on 26 December 1943, a matinee presentation of Puccini's La Bohème. Francis stayed on for another two years, producing 30 operas.
By the start of the twenty-first century, the opera house was showing its age with outmoded stage machinery, inadequate visitor facilities, and lack of air conditioning. In response, the Campania regional government funded a €67 million renovation over six months in 2008 and six months in 2009, which included restoration of the décor and the creation of a new rehearsal hall. The opera house reopened on 27 January 2010 with Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito, the 254th anniversary of the composer's birth.