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The Metropolitan Opera, New York City, USA
Teatro Massimo, Palermo, Sicily - Famous Opera House
319    Dibyendu Banerjee    03/01/2024

Standing majestically on the Piazza Verdi in Palermo, Sicily, as a monumental tribute to Italy’s rich cultural heritage and dedicated to King Victor Emanuel II, the Teatro Massimo Vittorio Emanuele, commonly known as Teatro Massimo, is the largest opera house in Italy, one of the largest in Europe and third in architectural order after the Opéra National in Paris and the Wiener Staatsoper in Vienna. Inspired by ancient and classical Sicilian architecture, the renowned Italian architect Giovan Battista Filippo Basile designed the Teatro Massimo, which is a marvel of architectural ingenuity, reflecting the reminiscent of the ancient Greek temple at Selinunte, probably dedicated to Hera and the temple of Concordia in Agrigento.

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The Teatro Massimo, with its golden ornamentations, red brocade armchairs, antique mirrors and the Murano chandeliers, along with its decorated halls, galleries and elegant grand staircases, stands out not only for its grandeur but also for its charm and elegance, making it a real attraction to visit.

teatro massimo palermo sicily

Even before the unification of Italy that began in1861, there had been talk of constructing a new, spacious and modern opera house in Palermo, the second biggest city in southern Italy after Naples. Accordingly, the area of Piazza Marina had been identified in 1859 as the site of the new building, to be named after Ferdinand II of Bourbon. But later, the City Council selected the area in the Porta Maqueda area, containing three churches and as many monasteries, namely the Church and Monastery of the Stigmata, the Church and Monastery of San Giuliano and the Church of Sant'Agata dedicated to Saint Agatha. On 10 September 1864, Antonio Starabba di Rudinì, the City Mayor, who succeeded Mariano Stabile, launched a competition for the creation of the proposed opera house in Palermo and on 4 September 1868 the jury conferred the first prize to Giovan Battista Filippo Basile, a well-known architect from Palermo.

teatro massimo palermo sicily

However, although in concurrence to the anniversary of the Sicilian revolution of 1848 the foundation stone was laid in Piazza Verdi on 12 January 1875, in the presence of all the major city authorities, works were suspended for eight years from 1882 and resumed in 1890, with the aim of completing them in time for the Exhibition of the following year.

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Unfortunately, as the architect of the project, Giovan Battista Filippo Basile, died a few months later, on 16 June 1891, the Municipality of Palermo requested his son, Architect Ernesto Basil to complete his father's work in progress, which he agreed and completed accordingly. Finally, twenty-two years after the laying of the foundation stone, the Teatro Massimo Vittorio Emanuele, with its 83.205 square feet (7730 sq m) of area, the fourth largest opera house in Europe at the time, was inaugurated on 16 May 1897, with the Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi’s Falstaff, a comic opera in three acts, conducted by the Italian composer Leopoldo Mugnone.

teatro massimo palermo sicily

The Teatro Massimo, often described as a temple of opera and recognised as a cultural landmark of the city, is richly decorated with the paintings of reputed Italian artists like Rocco Lentini, Michele Cortegiani, Ettore De Maria Bergler, Giuseppe Enea, Enrico Cavallaro and Luigi Di Giovanni, while busts of famous composers were carved for the theatre by the Italian sculptor, Giusto Liva and others.

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The majestic staircase of the opera house, guarded by two large bronze statues of lions on its two sides, is flanked by two bronze groups, depicting the Tragedy, created by the Italian sculptor Benedetto Civiletti and the depiction of Lyric, created by Giovanni Rutelli's son Mario Rutelli, who also created the Quadriga that overlooks the Teatro Politeama Garibaldi, the second most important theatre of the city, located in the central Piazza Ruggero Settimo. The Great Hall of the theatre, with seven tiers of boxes rising up around an inclined stage and shaped in the typical horseshoe style, is famous for its perfect acoustics. The huge dome of the building, with a diameter of 95.25 feet (28.73 m), surmounted by a large vase of Corinthian inspiration, is composed of an iron structure and covered by bronze scales.

teatro massimo palermo sicily

Among the magnificent decorating frescoes of the building, the Symbolic Wheel featuring eleven trapezoidal panels arranged in a wheel around a central round piece and depicting the Triumph of Music, is an artistic and engineering masterpiece, frescoed by Luigi di Giovanni, which deserves special attention. Apart from that, all the other decorating images of the building, which include the seven-pointed star in the skylight, representing the Venus, along with the 14 petals surrounding it, the 28 medallions of men’s and women’s busts, even the 14 doors, are all symbolic, based on the mystical number seven.

teatro massimo palermo sicily

In 1974, the theatre was closed for renovations, which continued for a prolonged period of 23 years, due to cost over-runs, corruption and political in-fighting. During that period, opera seasons were performed in Teatro Politeama Garibaldi, while a few performances, usually concerts, ballet and operetta, were held in Teatro della Verdura, a charming open-air venue. Finally, the renovated opera house reopened on 12 May 1997, four days before its centenary, with a concert conducted in the first part by the Italian composer Franco Mannino and in the second part by Claudio Abbado, an Italian conductor, considered one of the leading conductors of his generation, along with the Berliner Philharmoniker, a German orchestra based in Berlin. Today, the Teatro Massimo, a theatre of excellence for the opera, ballet and classical music concert seasons, is also considered as an attractive place to visit to discover a chapter of history, depicting the most beautiful and dramatic pages of Palermo.

The Metropolitan Opera, New York City, USA
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Author Details
Dibyendu Banerjee
Ex student of Scottish Church College. Served a Nationalised Bank for nearly 35 years. Authored novels in Bengali. Translated into Bengali novels/short stories of Leo Tolstoy, Eric Maria Remarque, D.H.Lawrence, Harold Robbins, Guy de Maupassant, Somerset Maugham and others. Also compiled collections of short stories from Africa and Third World. Interested in literature, history, music, sports and international films.
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