The international grandeur of Bari’s Teatro Petruzzelli

by Rino Alessi

The Teatro Petruzzelli is a symbol of both Italian musical excellence and architectural beauty and harmony; currently owned by the Messeni Nemagna family, it is the main theater in Bari, the fourth largest in Italy, and the largest private theater in Europe.

The capital city of Apulia is renowned for its grandeur: the locals love to say, “If Paris was on the sea, it would be like a small Bari”. In truth, in 1854, following in the footsteps of other major Italian cities, Bari had already inaugurated a public theater, the Piccinni, named after one of the most important composers from the region. Its small capacity (approximately 1,000 people) made quite a few people unhappy, to the point that some started to demand another theater “of all and for all”. In this reactive situation, the great success of Pietro Mascagni’s “Cavalleria rusticana” in 1890 was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Mascagni – born in Livorno, but deeply tied to Apulia – had composed his work while living in Cerignola, so Bari and Apulia awaited his masterpiece with great anticipation.

Therefore, in 1877 the City Council decided to give 12,000 lire and an allotment of free land to the company willing to build a theater under the terms and conditions it had set. Brothers Onofrio and Antonio Petruzzelli – two traders and ship builders originally from Trieste – presented a project by their brother-in-law, Bari-born engineer Angelo Cicciomessere (who later changed his name to Messeni by Royal Decree). Their proposal was approved in 1895, but construction did not begin until May 23, 1898; the Teatro Petruzzelli opened four years later, on February 14, 1903, with “Les Huguenots” by Giacomo Meyerbeer (recently performed in Martina Franca, for the Festival pugliese della Valle d’Itria). Compared to other structures in Italy, the Petruzzelli had an outstanding capacity (originally 2,192 seats, reduced to 1,482 over time due to safety standards) and offered a wide variety of shows.

Its stage welcomed the great masterpieces of opera (especially Verdi and Puccini) as well as new works in step with international artistic trends, such as Marchetti’s ‘grand opéra’ “Ruy Blas”, Auber’s opéra-comique “Fra Diavolo”, Gomes’s opera ballo “Il Guarany”, and the famous “Ballo Excelsior” by Marenco.

Unforgettable artists like Beniamino Gigli, Licia Albanese, Tito Schipa, Mario Del Monaco, Alfredo Kraus, Luciano Pavarotti, Renato Bruson, Renata Tebaldi, Piero Cappuccilli, Raina Kabaivanska, and Ruggero Raimondi all performed here. Not to mention conductors Herbert von Karajan and Riccardo Muti, dancers Rudolf Nureyev and Carla Fracci.

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