Teatro Carlo Felice

Maurizio Beatrici, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Maurizio Beatrici, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

This month’s essay continues the yearly series of articles dealing with Italian Opera Houses. Teatro Carlo Felice is located in the heart of Genoa, on a side of Piazza De Ferrari and close to the fountain and the statue of Giuseppe Garibaldi on horseback. It is the principal opera house of Genoa.

Teatro Carlo Felice, Opera House of Genoa, was built in the mid-1800s. Destroyed by bombs in World War II, it was rebuilt in the late 1900s. In 1984, a group of architects under the lead of Aldo Rossi presented a design that was approved and work at long last began on a new theater. The new theater was completed in summer, 1991.


Photo ©Gabriele Costetti, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

CELEBRATED: Italian architecture, Opera and music
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ASSOCIATIONS: Historical site
ADDITIONAL KEY INFO: National Treasure

Opera House of Genoa

Statue of Garibaldi in front of Teatro Carlo Felice | Photo:
The theater dates from December 24, 1824, when the Most Excellent Department of Theaters was established for the purpose of funding and building a theater in the heart of Genoa. The ambitious project was intended to give Genoa an elegant artistic venue for melodrama (which was very fashionable at the time) that could compete with the theaters of other important cities in Italy.

A competition was launched for the design of the theater, and local architect Carlo Barabino submitted the award-winning design on January 31, 1825. The theater was planned to be built on the site of the Church of San Domenico. The Dominican friars were moved to another parish in the city without delay or ceremony, and the first stone of the new building was laid on March 19, 1826 (the Feast of St. Joseph). Luigi Canonica was also hired to participate in the building of the theater. He was famous for being the royal architect and for having worked on various theaters. He was assigned the construction of the stage and the curvature of the hall to enhance acoustics.

The theater is named for King Carlo Felice of Sardinia because (as legend has it) the great Genoese musician Niccolò Paganini had refused to grant an encore during a concert he was performing in Turin for the king, who was an important monarch in Italy at the time. So, years later, the theater was dedicated to the king, in the hope of appeasing his anger towards the city. No one knows for sure if the king was angry with the city, or if the dedication ameliorated his anger, or if the whole story is even true.

What is known for sure is that the Teatro Carlo Felice opened on April 7, 1828, in the presence of King Carlo Felice and Queen Maria Cristina. On that occasion, Vincenzo Bellini’s opera Bianca e Fernando was performed to widespread praise, even though the structure and the decoration of the theater were not quite finished. The theater eventually accommodated an audience of about 2,500, in a typical horseshoe shape, with five tiers (each with 33 boxes), a gallery above, and, as was common in theaters at the time, only standing room in the orchestra area. The acoustics were considered among the best of the time, thanks to the work of Canonica.

For nearly forty years after 1853, Verdi spent the winter in Genoa, but he had few strong professional ties with the Teatro Carlo Felice. In 1892, Genoa commemorated the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of America (Columbus had been born and raised during his early years in Genoa), and to celebrate the occasion the Teatro Carlo Felice was renovated and redecorated at a cost of 420,000 lire. Verdi was approached to compose a suitable opera, but he declined the honor, making the excuse that he was too old. Alberto Franchetti’s opera Cristoforo Colombo premiered at the Carlo Felice on October 6, 1892.

The theater was further remodeled many times during the years 1850–1934 to keep it up-to-date with the latest technological advances. For example, in 1852 gas lighting replaced candles, and then in 1892 electric lighting replaced the gas lights. Teatro Carlo Felice remained remarkably unscathed by war throughout its history until World War II. On February 9, 1941 a shell fired by a British warship off the coast of Genoa hit the roof. The shot left a huge hole in the roof, resulting in the interior of the theater being exposed to the sky. The bombardment also destroyed the art work on the ceiling of the auditorium, which had been a unique example of 19th-century rococo extravagance; its main feature being a wide circle of angels, cherubs and other winged creatures in brightly painted high relief.

Further damage was sustained on August 5, 1943 when Allied bombers dropped incendiary bombs that started a backstage fire which destroyed all scenery and wooden fittings, but luckily  did not reach the theater’s main auditorium. Unfortunately, additional damage was caused by looters who stripped the back of the theater of every possible scrap of metal they could find. Finally, a further bombardment in September, 1944 caused the destruction of the front of the theater, leaving virtually only the outside walls and the corridors behind the tiers of boxes standing. What had once been one of the most beautiful and richly adorned opera houses in Europe, by the end of the war had become a skeleton of bare walls and roofless porticos. (After the war, opera seasons were held for over forty years in an emergency venue, the Cinema Teatro Margherita).

Reconstruction plans began in 1946, soon after the war ended. However, the economic hardships of post-war Italy caused the project to be put on hold. Finally, in 1951, a competition was held for the design of the remodeled theater. The first design by Paolo Antonio Chessa was rejected. The project was again put on hold for over a quarter of a century because of further economic problems and bickering among the notables who would finance the reconstruction project.

In 1977, Carlo Scarpa offered a design that was approved, but it was brought to a halt by his untimely death in November, 1978. Finally, in 1984, a group of architects under the lead of Aldo Rossi presented a design that was approved and work at long last began on a new theater. The undertaking was not easy because it was bound by some choices which had been made by the municipality of Genoa that had to be respected by the architects and builders. They had to build the new theater in the same place as the old one, on a piece of property 400 square meters (roughly 4,306 sq. feet). They had to keep the neo-classical features of the original pronaus (i.e. a vestibule taken from Greco-Roman temple architecture that stands at the front of the building and is enclosed by a portico and projecting sidewalls), the colonnade, and the stone portico decorated with bas-relief, all of which Barabino had designed for the original theater. Finally, they had to create continuity between Piazza De Ferrari and Galleria Mazzini, which both face the front of the theater, through the creation of a covered square in conformity with the original theater’s foyer.

The new theater was completed in summer, 1991 and offered its first programs in October of that year. The interior of the building was completely re-designed. It has a very compact, geometric shape, over which looks an imposing triangular tower that  soars to a height of about 207 feet (63 meters) and hides sophisticated equipment for moving all the stage machinery and set designs. In fact, the theater now has four stages:  a main stage, a dorsal stage behind the first, and two lower stages aligned with each other and managed by integrated and computerized electronic systems. All stages are able to be prepared and then moved into or out of sight of the viewing audience. In addition, the theater boasts computerized stage lighting. All of this is managed by integrated and computerized electronic systems that are directed from sophisticated control booths.

The exterior of the theater is built of stone, plaster and iron, while the interiors are adorned with marble and wood. The main theater, which now seats around 2000, hosts an orchestra pit for up to 88 musicians. From the covered square, going down a staircase, there is a room that is equipped with a small stage and is independent from the rest of the theater. It is capable of seating up to 200 and hosts conventions, conferences and smaller musical performances.

Always one step ahead, the web-TV productions of the theater have been active since 2010, broadcasting various performances across the Internet. These performances are entirely handled from inside the theater itself; the sixth floor houses a studio which is dedicated to the broadcast production of these performances from the main stage of the theater.

All these features make the almost two-centuries-old Teatro Carlo Felice one of the most advanced theaters not only in Italy but in the world. In addition to opera, the theater is used for performances of ballet, orchestral music and recitals.


Adapted by James J. Boitano, PhD from:
  • Histouring website
  • Petronzi, Monica. “Carlo Felice Theater in Genoa: the History of the Risen Theater.”  Hermes Magazine website, January 8, 2021
  • Semonella, Andrea. “Carlo Felice Genova: Season 2020, Visit the Theatre and Other Useful Info.”  Discover Genoawebsite, September 11, 2019
  • Visit Genoa website
  • Wikipedia website

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