After the creation of the Kingdom of Italy in 1861, the City Council of Palermo decided to construct a magnificent theatre, to rival the famous opera houses of Europe. After all, their city was the second largest in southern Italy, after Naples; and Naples had basked in the glory of the Teatro San Carlo since 1737. It was time, they felt, that Palermo should take her rightful place as one of the great European cities. So they held a competition for the design of the project, and settled on a plan proposed by the architect Giovan Battista Filippo Basile.
Construction did not begin until 1874. Preparing the chosen site required that four churches, two convents, and the Porta Maqueda, a historic city gate, be demolished. Perhaps public outcry over the destruction of the sacred buildings contributed to the delay; but it was said that when the Convent of the Stigmata was razed, the grave of a former Mother Superior was desecrated, and her spirit was so outraged that it placed a solemn curse on the theatre. From the laying of the cornerstone to the completion of the theatre, it took almost 23 years, by which time many of the original proponents were dead, including the architect. Was it the powerful curse of La Monachella, (The Nun), or simply cost over-runs, corruption, and governmental squabbling that caused the delay?
The Teatro Massimo Vittorio Emanuele, the pride of Palermo, at last opened on 16 May 1897, with a production of Verdi’s Falstaff. Teatro Massimo was then, and is now, the largest opera house in Italy, and the third largest in Europe (after the Paris Opera and the Staatsoper in Vienna). Falstaff was a great success, and the entire opera season quickly sold out. For many years, the magnificent Neo-Classical building, crowned by its splendid dome, hosted renowned operas and performers.
All the while, though, tradition has it that the shade of La Monachella stalked the corridors, dressing rooms, and stairs of the theatre, breathing curses on performers and audiences alike. Many people claimed to have encountered her. There is even a special step on one of the theatre’s stairs, called the Gradino della Suora (the Nun’s Step), where (if you don’t believe she exists), you are sure to stumble.
In 1974, the theatre was closed for renovations, to comply with new safety regulations. No one thought the closure would be long-term. But the building did not reopen for — strangely enough — 23 years. Was it the powerful curse of La Monachella, or simply cost over-runs, corruption, and governmental squabbling that caused the delay? The theatre finally reopened in 1997, a century after Verdi’s Falstaff christened the building. At first only concerts were performed in the renovated structure, but in 1998, Verdi’s Aida took the stage.
Perhaps the nun’s wrath has subsided. The elegant ranks of gilded boxes glisten, the King’s Box, swathed in carved draperies, can be occupied by anyone willing to pay the price, and music fills the air.
The facade, with its monumental flight of steps, fluted columns, and Sicilian Corinthian capitals, looms like a temple from Agrigento or Selinunte over Piazza Verdi, where most evenings crowds of people congregate, enjoying the warm Sicilian nights, before adjourning for dinner to the restaurants of nearby Politeama Square (or, more thriftily, enjoying street food while leaning against the fence surrounding the theatre). The scene is surveyed by a statue of Verdi (who seems relatively pleased), and by two engaging bronze ladies reclining on great bronze lions. The women represent Tragedy and Music. I’m not sure what the lions represent.
I toured Teatro Massimo and attended two performances there during my last visit, and didn’t stumble once. I guess I’m just a believer. During the tour, someone pointed out the Nun’s Step to me. I’d like to tell you where it is, but, oddly, I seem to have forgotten. If you visit Palermo, you really should take in a performance — the acoustics are perfect — but for goodness’ sake, watch your step!