Venice's La Fenice mired in the ashes

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The Independent Online

The stage that hosted the world premiere of Verdi's La Traviata is a ghostly charred frame. An immense yellow crane rises from what was once the orchestra pit. Sunlight streams through the open roof through a jungle of steel scaffolding on which pigeons and yellow helmeted workers are perched. Labourers extract and replace fire-damaged bricks one at a time

The stage that hosted the world premiere of Verdi's La Traviata is a ghostly charred frame. An immense yellow crane rises from what was once the orchestra pit. Sunlight streams through the open roof through a jungle of steel scaffolding on which pigeons and yellow helmeted workers are perched. Labourers extract and replace fire-damaged bricks one at a time

The view from inside what was once Italy's most exquisite opera house is grim. When the Teatro La Fenice was reduced to a charred shell in a tragic fire in January 1996, the then mayor, Massimo Cacciari, vowed it would be rebuilt "as it was, where it was" within two years. All that remained standing were the retaining walls and facade, with the sumptuous interiors lost.

But the hopes of opera lovers and locals that the La Fenice - Italian for phoenix - would rise swiftly from its ashes have faded. Bureaucratic bungling, legal challenges and buck passing has meant the original re-opening date, December 1999, has slipped repeatedly. It now looks as if the 18th-century jewel will not be ready until 2002.

"It's heartbreaking. People were so moved by our loss and gave so generously and now they are asking, and so are we, why must we wait so long?" says Barbara di Valmarana, president of Friends of La Fenice, whose office faces the construction site.

A half-hour vaporetto ride away on Venice's industrial outskirts, opera buffs and tourists file into the Palafenice, a circus tent that is the temporary home of the Venice opera company. The set designers have adopted a minimalist set for The Marriage of Figaro and the orchestra is wedged between the stage and the rows of plastic chairs. La Fenice had a world-renowned acoustic; here ship-horns, aircraft noise and sailors' shouts float through the tent walls.

As if being homeless were not enough of a scourge, many Venetians have abandoned the opera in its hour of need. Their place has been taken by music lovers from the mainland - Padua and Treviso - encouraged by a huge parking complex nearby. The company had to halve ticket prices.

The saga of the reconstruction would provide material for a tragicomic opera. In 1997, Impregilo, an Italian company linked to Fiat, won the tender, but a year later a rival consortium, Holzmann Romagnoli, successfully appealed on the basis that Impregilo's bid was incomplete. The consortium took over the contract, but then a third contender insisted the whole process begin from scratch. After appeals and counter-appeals, which Holzmann Romagnoli finally won, work began in earnest only last year.

"Apart from the difficulties of taking over from a different company, and the fact that Venice is on water, we literally have to rebuild piece by piece," says Roberto Scibillia, director of works. "I hope we can finish by 2002 but there are so many variables."

Efforts to bring to justice those responsible for the tragic blaze are equally sluggish. The trial began a year ago of two electricians accused of lighting the fire to avoid penalties for late work. Eight others, including former mayor Cacciari, are charged with negligence.

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