Hitting the high notes

MUSIC IN ITALY: La Fenice Theatre's production of "Othello" inside the courtyard on the Doge Palace in Venice, Italy.
MUSIC IN ITALY: La Fenice Theatre's production of "Othello" inside the courtyard on the Doge Palace in Venice, Italy.

On our first night in Venice, the earth moves. It feels as if someone has got hold of the bed and is shaking it from side to side.

Next morning I want to ask the concierge what has happened but I can't very well ask him whether the earth moved for him, too.

Before I can broach the subject, he tells us an earthquake in Bologna in the night caused tremors in Venice.

LA FENICE THEATRE: Venice's opera house.
LA FENICE THEATRE: Venice's opera house.

Having visited Venice several times, I wasn't expecting any surprises, especially not such an earth-shattering one.

But remarkable cities, like remarkable people, have an infinite capacity to surprise and on this visit I discover an aspect of Venice I've not encountered before: its music.

Mention opera in Italy and Milan's La Scala, Verona's amphitheatre and Rome's Baths of Caracalla come to mind, but I had never thought so readily of La Fenice, Venice's opera house, until I read John Berendt's City of Falling Angels.

It is his fascinating account of the fire that destroyed the opera house in 1996 that inspires me to see its production of La Boheme.

There's a buzz in the brightly lit foyer but it isn't until the usherette unlocks the door of our box that it becomes clear how aptly named this theatre is.

La Fenice means the phoenix and this opera house has literally risen from the ashes. It's as though we've stepped inside a rococo jewel box.

The ceiling is decorated with gilded cherubs, plump cupids and stucco angels floating between painted panels depicting arcadian landscapes.

Running all the way around the small theatre are three tiers of boxes decorated with garlands and arabesques, and furnished with seats covered in crimson velvet. Enthralled by the decor as well as the production, we leave the theatre on a high.

I think La Fenice is to be my only operatic experience in Venice until some Americans at our hotel mention that the Palazzo Barbarigo Minotti stages intimate opera performances. We are in luck: that very night they are performing The Barber of Seville, and our concierge has two tickets.

After a dinner of stuffed calamari and lobster salad followed by a complimentary carafe of limoncello at an outdoor trattoria in the Campo San Stefano, we cross several little bridges and turn into a narrow pathway running alongside a narrow waterway, Rio Zaguri.

There are no posters advertising opera on the wrought iron gate of the dark building at the end of the path and I am ready to turn back when, at the top of a steep staircase, we are transported into the exuberant Venice of the 18th century.

The ceiling is covered in mythical scenes painted by Tiepolo, while the elm-tree floor is intricately inlaid with olivewood marquetry. Even the doors are works of art: banded in walnut, with leaf-shaped handles made of bronze, they are in the style of Louis XVI. The tall windows of this Venetian Gothic building look out on to the Grand Canal.

The hall is filled to capacity with about 100 people. By the flickering light of candles carried by ushers with powdered wigs, the musicians begin to play.

The Barber of Seville is a delicious romp but never have I seen it so delightfully performed: the singers, in period costume, have a flair for comedy, and make us laugh with their antics, especially when they circulate among the audience and involve it in the action.

To see this 18th-century opera performed in a Renaissance palace is experience enough, let alone being part of a mobile audience that moves around the palace as each act takes place in a different chamber.

The following afternoon, as we stroll around the Rialto bridge, I spy an advertisement for a chamber music concert in the church of San Vidal. Although we arrive early, it is already packed. Entranced by the setting and the impassioned playing, we return the following evening to hear The Four Seasons performed in the city where its composer, Vivaldi, was born.

On our last evening in Venice, we take a gondola along the narrow waterways behind the Grand Canal but when our gondolier offers to serenade us, we decline - day and night along all the canals, the gondoliers serenade passengers with Neapolitan love songs which are soulful though not always tuneful.

He talks instead, and we discover his wife is a harpist in the orchestra at La Fenice and was playing on the night we were there.

It is close to midnight when we head back to our hotel. As we cross St Mark's square, I remark that this is our first night in Venice without music.

Hardly are the words out of my mouth when we hear Latin American music. Outside Florian's Cafe, a five-piece band is playing tangoes and rhumbas. We join the crowd at the outdoor tables.

It is our last night in Venice and by the time I've finished my prosecco, the earth is moving again.

GETTING THERE Fly to Dubai and then to Venice (6hr 40min); see emirates.com. Look for deals before you leave.

STAYING THERE The Westin Europa & Regina is situated on the Grand Canal facing Santa Maria Salute, around the corner from La Fenice and a short walk from St Mark's Square. See starwoodhotels.com.

SEE + DO Palazzo Barbarigo Minotto, see musicapalazzo.com. La Fenice, see teatrolafenice.it.

Posters in St Mark's Square advertise chamber music performances in various churches.

MORE INFORMATION italianticketoffice.it.