A cultural highlight for Bergamo
The Teatro Donizetti first announced its renovation project to an international public at the Opera Europa Congress in Strasbourg and Karlsruhe in autumn 2019. The historic theatre is a member of the association of around 30 Teatro di Tradizione in Italy. It is run by the Fondazione Teatro Donizetti and jointly funded by a public foundation, the Italian arts ministry, the city, the regional authority, and numerous private sponsors.
As is common in Italy, it does not have its own permanent ensemble of artists but puts together an ensemble of singers, a choir, and an orchestra for each production – most notably, the annual Donizetti Festival. As well as this event, the Fondazione Teatro Donizetti also organizes drama performances and a prominent jazz festival. It also hosts smaller performances and many activities for schoolchildren.
The 1200-seater theatre was built in the space of a few years around 1800, to replace a predecessor building that had burnt down. Over the centuries, it went through several changes: Originally named Teatro Riccardo, to mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of composer and native of Bergamo Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848), it was rebuilt and renamed Teatro Donizetti. The most radical changes took place between 1962 and 1964 when a new roof was put on the main building and a reinforced concrete stage tower built. In addition, a new wing was built on the right side, which was further extended in later years.
Planning for the restoration and extension of the Teatro Donizetti began as far back as 2007. The city council advertised for design bids and gave the commission to a team led by the Nicola Berlucchi engineering firm, specialists in theatre construction and restoration. Subsequent arrangements with the Italian arts ministry and the city of Bergamo then dragged on for so long that planning was not finally completed for another ten years. The costs were originally projected at 14.35 million Euros net, borne by the Ministry for the Arts and Tourism and the City of Bergamo. Considerable contributions were also made by private donors. But unforeseen additional work, planning changes, and the separate tender for lighting, sound, and stage technology, pushed up the total building costs to 20.85 million Euros net in the end.
The theatre hall
The horseshoe-shaped hall seats around 1220. There are 500 seats in the stalls, 424 in the three circles and 296 in the two galleries. The renovation work centred on the auditorium. Here, the floor was taken out and an entirely new basement built to house new rooms for technology and sanitary facilities as well as a storeroom for musical instruments.
The floor of the hall also plays a key role in the acoustics. “An acoustically sensitive aspect of restoring historical theatres is how you integrate the ventilation equipment. To boost the previously weak ventilation, a supply air plenum was integrated via the new rooms in the basement, which is enclosed by a new, completely elevated, wooden floor construction. The air now flows soundlessly, in small portions, under every seat in the auditorium – this is a floor construction that I have planned consistently for every theatre since our reconstruction of the Teatro La Fenice in 2003,” explains Jürgen Reinhold, acoustician at Müller-BBM. If the acoustic design is right, these all-wood floors, which can carry perceptible vibrations, form the ideal covering. Consequently, for the sake of the acoustics, there are no longer carpets in the stalls. But since plush coverings had always been kept to a minimum here, as Reinhold points out, the acoustics in the Teatro Donizetti were good even before its restoration.
Functional rooms and house technology
The side wing of the historic theatre was redesigned with an extension added, housing a multi-purpose hall for chamber orchestra performances and conferences, as well as new rehearsal rooms for the ballet and choir. It also gained a new banqueting hall, plus cloakrooms for some 200 artists (actors and singers, extras, choir members, musicians etc.). The carpentry workshop was modernized and extended so that stage designers can now build sets on site. Not only that, the Fondazione Teatro Donizetti’s administrative staff also gained new offices.
The side wings of the building were connected to the main building via two new stairwells, creating a visually appealing effect as well as meeting fire protection requirements. The side facades and the stage tower were given a new ‘second skin’ of colourful concrete elements resembling sandstone, which complement and simultaneously accentuate the historic façade of 1897. And nearly all areas of the theatre have been made more easily accessible to audiences, artists, and staff, including wheelchair users.
The stage technology was modernized and adjusted to the requirements of the house by Decima 1948. A key improvement was made to the orchestra pit and forestage: Thanks to flexible seating and a corresponding orchestra pit construction, the hall can be variously used for operas, plays or concerts. The orchestra pit sits on a hydraulically driven, two-floor platform of about 73 m², which can rise to 4 m. The three main configurations this allows are:
1. The orchestra in the pit, with the platform lowered, and the seating rows stored in the lower part of the two-floor platform.
2. The orchestra platform on a level with the stalls, with five rows of seats. This configuration is used for concerts – with the orchestra on the stage – and plays.
3. The orchestra platform on a level with the stage, creating a large forestage. The superfluous rows of seats are stored in the two-floor platform.
With the hydraulic Spiralift drive (6 x 9 inch) and the in-house Curio 4.0 SIL 3 electronic controls, each of these variants can be configured in double-quick time within a range of five levels. The surfaces are built to carry a working load of 500 kN per m². The stage floor is permanently installed and equipped with trapdoors. The historic wooden substructure was preserved and the stage floor itself merely restored. In this respect, then, the theatre has retained its historic character.
The upper machinery is reconfigurable for flexible usage. For structural reasons, the wooden rigging loft was reinforced with additional wooden beams spanning the entire width of the fly tower. The rigging loft is fully walk-on. 16 electric-driven hoists can be used individually or in sets of four as point hoists to carry a pull rod with a working load of 2000 kg. They can be moved across the entire stage area via pre-programmable computer controls. And most of the classic manual winches, so popular with stagehands, have been kept. To transport loads, there is a cargo hoist that can also be manually driven. Operating across the entire height of the stage up to +25 m, it can supply all the working galleries, and carry 1000 kg.
In Jürgen Reinhold’s eyes, the in-house technology has one small drawback: “Historic theatres generally lack the space for all the bulky ventilation machinery etc.,” he says. “It’s the same at Teatro Donizetti: The ventilation equipment takes up two roof terraces – which means that, sadly, the audience can’t take advantage of them in the intervals and see the beautiful view of the historic city centre from up there.” But that is no reason not to visit and admire the Teatro Donizetti and the city of Bergamo from the many vantage-points they do offer.
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