Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

 entry Aug. 2003

                                                                    The Mercadante Theater

When the Jesuits were expelled from the Kingdom of Naples in the 1770s, a fund was set up to handle the new wealth that had accrued to the Kingdom from the confiscated property. One decision was to build a new theater, appropriately called the Teatro Fondo (after the "fund" that had underwritten the construction). It was inaugurated in 1779 and was intended to be more a vehicle for lighter theater, such as the Comic Opera, and not to be in direct competition with nearby San Carlo, generally given to more serious works. Unlike smaller, private theaters in Naples at the time, the Teatro Fondo was sponsored by the state; thus, it was a "royal theater" like San Carlo and was prestigious.

During the brief duration of the Neapolitan Republic in 1799, the name was changed to Il Teatro Patriottico, and monarchist fluff such as Comic Opera was abolished in favor of the more politically educational fare of republican theater. Between 1809 and 1829, the theater was managed by Domenico Barbaja, also director of San Carlo. During that period, many works that one would normally associate with San Carlo —the works of Mozart, Rossini, Donizetti, and Bellini, for example— were commonly performed at the Teatro Fondo.

The name of the theater was changed to the Mercadante Theater in 1870 to honor Saverio Mercadante, a prominent Neapolitan composer and director of the Naples Music Conservatory, who had just passed away. Although obscure today, Mercadante enjoyed a considerable reputation during his lifetime and was mentioned in the same breath as Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini and even Verdi as one of the great Italian composers of the 19th century. His entire life was bound up with Naples; he entered the Naples Conservatory in 1808, became the composer–in–residence at San Carlo in 1823, the director of the conservatory in 1840, and from 1845-55 the director of San Carlo. 

For reasons having to do with his support of the Carbonarist Revolution in Naples in 1820-1, Mercadante left Naples for a few years and worked in northern Italy, Austria and Spain. Reconciled with the Bourbon monarchy in Naples, he returned to continue his career as composer and musical impresario. He is best remembered, historically, as one who tried to revitalize Italian instrumental music (as opposed to opera) and one who introduced Neapolitan audiences to the music of contemporary German composers. Mercadante was held in such high esteem that when the Kingdom of Naples collapsed before the forces of Garibaldi, he was kept on as director of the Conservatory, where he turned out an orchestral hymn to Garibaldi, no doubt with the same professionalism as a year earlier when he had composed the coronation music for Francis II, the last King of Naples.

In the latter part of the 19th century, the Mercadante Theater gradually left music to San Carlo and concentrated on plays and, later, vaudeville. The theater was damaged in WW2. Now, after decades of difficult false starts, the Mercadante has been restored and is once again in a position to host significant contributions to the cultural life of the city. As one sees the theater today, the façade is the redone version from 1893, the decade of the great urban renewal of that part of the city. Today, over 100 years later, the Mercadante is flanked by bigger and, frankly, ugly buildings such that it now stands out like a gem.

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