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Artists fume as opera chief is jailed for arson

ON 27 OCTOBER 1991, Bari's Petruzzelli opera theatre was gutted by fire. This week, Fernando Pinto, the flamboyant impresario who managed the theatre at the time, was sentenced to six years in prison for commissioning the blaze.

But as authorities in Bari welcomed the outcome, dissenting voices were immediately raised. In the cultural world, many questioned whether the man who injected life into Bari's barren cultural scene could possibly have then sent the theatre up in flames.

"I've worked with this man," said Nobel prize-winning playwright Dario Fo when asked why he considered Pinto innocent. "He's full of ideas, he's courageous. This is simply a case of magistrates not wanting to admit that they got it wrong."

"Frankly, I don't believe it," said film director Lina Wertmuller. "He loved that theatre as if it were his own child. And however serious your problems are, you don't kill your own child."

According to the court ruling, Pinto did have problems: financial problems which were so serious that he resorted to loan-sharks to bail him out. When he was unable to pay back his debts and the hefty interest payments on top, only one solution was left to him, the court said - start a small fire in the theatre, just large enough to bring in some insurance money and state aid for reconstruction. Not only could the debt be repaid, the bosses could be further placated by assigning restoration work to their favourite building companies.

So, said the prosecution, just hours after the curtain came down on the great fire scene in Verdi's Norma, two local mobsters moved into the theatre and set fires inside the building. These got out of hand, however; and the arsonists soon found themselves trapped, and had to hammer down a door to escape the blaze which sent flames high into Bari's night sky.

The massive bulk of the Petruzzelli, however, holds a special place in local hearts. For days after the blaze, television news programmes showed footage of citizens looking bleakly at the charred remains.

Pinto joined in the mass woe, weeping openly as he spoke of his love for the theatre. His performance failed to cut much ice with investigators who placed him high on their list of suspects, as did the Messeni Nemagna family which built Italy's fourth-largest theatre 100 years ago and still owns it.

The family refused to comment on Pinto's sentence, saying only that "the court's decision was clearly based on proven facts".

Dario Fo told La Repubblica he disagreed strongly. Why, he asked, did investigators decide to disallow testimony from two local hoodlums who confessed that they had been asked by relations to burn the theatre down for reasons which were unspecified but nothing to do with Pinto? And why would Pinto have lowered insurance premiums on the theatre in 1991 if he was going to burn the place down shortly after?

Pinto's case will now move to an appeals court. The theatre itself remains a burnt-out shell.

"We would like to open it again in two years' time," said Francesco Garibaldi, son of the owner, Vittoria Messeni Nemagna, who put the cost of restoration at 32 billion lire (about pounds 16m). "But that will depend on getting money promised by the state."