The Phoenix – La Fenice

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I vaguely remember when Venice’s historic opera house burned in 1996, but now listening to John Berendt’s The City of Falling Angels, I find the story brought to life with all the shock, mess, and drama one would expect to find from the world’s wettest city, at the edge of the world’s most beautiful but inefficient country.

John Berendt delighted me with an earlier book called In the Garden of Good and Evil, about another beautiful city peopled by spooky and eccentric characters–Savannah, Georgia. But where that book roused Savannah from a sleepy backwater to haunt us, this one pits Berendt’s investigative myth-making against a place with its own ancient and well-cultivated panache.

The burning of La Fenice itself is spectacularly evoked, from sparks that spiral like rockets to collapsing floors that shake the surroundings, from green, blue, yellow, red flames that lick the night sky to ash that descends like grey rain. We have a front-row seat–the upper levels of a palazzo across the dried-up canal where a great glass-blower, Signor Aguso (?) stands watching for hours. If the wind had been blowing from another direction, he comments early in the account, the entire city of Venice would have burned.

The ineptitude of detection and control would be laughable if they weren’t so pitiful. Fire alarms inside La Fenice, which was in the process of mammoth renovation, had been disabled. The canal just outside the opera house had been drained for dredging and repair. Thus in a city cut through by canals, fire-fighters had trouble drawing up enough water to douse the fire. Their hoses, outmoded and cracked, broke and had to be repaired. Finally a water-sucking helicopter began air-lifting water from the Grand Canal and dropping it with a whoosh onto the burning structure. By then it was too late: the interior of La Fenice, with its centuries-old carvings and paintings, its manuscript originals of Verdi’s La Traviata (and other operas originally commissioned by La Fenice) –all were burned beyond recognition. Though the exterior of stone remained virtually untouched, the inside was gutted.

Berendt then leaves that story for many others–about a schism in the glass-blowing family across the lagoon in Murano, about another family fraught with conflict, but this one essentially Italo-American of rather antique vintage, the Curtises whose grandfather took up residence in a grand palazzo on the Grand Canal in the 1870s, hosted Henry James, Robert Browning, were painted by Sargeant and others, but whose contemporary threesome includes a brother who’s turned his portion of the palazzo into “lift-off” central where he replays tapes of moon launches. Very very bizarre. And delightful to read about, or in my case, listen to before bed. You don’t fall in love with a grande dame like Venice and find her easy, but under Berendt’s persistent yet gentle attention, the city unveils some of its stories. I assume, like its name, the opera house will rise from its flames, and that Berendt with a chronicler’s best instincts will end his story with the house once again hosting beautiful music. When I visited Venice last October, La Fenice was open for business. The next time I go back, I hope to sit in its reconstituted splendor and think about fire and water, and how in this spectacular case, they simply did not mix.

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