Asolo Theater Shines Once Again

Asolo Theater

It has been described as a 21st century building with an 18th century heart.

The Asolo Theater is also fit for a queen. After all, it was built in honor of the Queen of Cyprus, after she was exiled to the small town of Asolo, near Venice.

For years, the theater was closed to the general public. Now, the Asolo is back. Theater curator Dwight Currie:

CURRIE: Every single one of these pieces of gilding has been removed and cleaned. Every single portrait, all the way around, they've all been restored. All of their gaps have been filed. So the cataloguing of it taking apart of it was huge. There are numbers on the seats underneath the sconces, those all had to be restored and re-gilded. There are literally thousands and thousands of pieces of gilding that had to be catalogued and enumerated so they can be put up.

The original Asolo Theater was built in 1798 within the castle of Caterina Cornaro. The exiled queen was considered important enough that her portrait was painted by numerous Renaissance artists, including Bellini and Titian.

The theater was dismantled and eventually made its way to Sarasota, when it was purchased by 'Chick' Austin Jr. in the 1950s. He was the first director of the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art.

The theater was closed to the public in the late 1990s and removed from its former building. It now sits in the new visitor's center on the Ringling estate.

The restoration took two years. Currie says after all this work, the Asolo won't be neglected again.

CURRIE: This is an incredible treasure. This one had not been as lovingly tended as it could of been - or should have been - and now it is. And it will be, from this point forward. It will be taken care of.

The intimate theater has fewer than 300 seats, layered in three tiers. The Queen's portrait is front and center on the second tier, in what would have been the royal box. She's flanked on the side by portraits of some of the great writers of Renaissance Italy.

CURRIE: From what the theater takes its name from in being known as a 'jewel box of a theater' are large emeralds and rubies that circle the third tier;' dead-center is a iconograph portrait of love, merriment and delight, and the mass of comedy, tragedy and the Italian pastoral flank either sides of the proscenium. And clear to the top of the proscenium are all kinds of figures that deal with music.

Chief Conservator Michelle Scalera says there are 72 original panels, all fashioned from pine indigenous to Italy. She says their biggest challenge was getting the proper tint.

SCALARA: I think effectively matching the colors to the original color and integrity. That's the greens, the creams, the grisides, and doing as little as possible to make it visually integrated, is really what it was. The musical instruments that are recurring themes, the shells, the sunlight, the beautiful ornamentations, were all things that wherever possible, we retained. Anything that was missing or lost, we re-created or replaced.

The grand re-opening to the public will be held Thursday. Ringling Museum donors will gather then to recreate a famous Life Magazine photograph taken in the 1950s.

Dr. John Wetenhall is executive director of the Ringling Museum. He says a few people who were on hand 50 years ago for the original photo have purchased tickets for the event.

WETENHALL: There were, in fact, a number of people from our community that were in that picture. But it was a famous picture - certainly for the Ringling Museum to be on the cover of Life Magazine. And so we want to recreate it with the figures on the stage, in a view from the stage to the public, that shows off our most extraordinary artwork.

They'll then close for about a month to complete installation of the theater's movie screen and sound system.

The first show will be held in October, when Grammy Award-winning mezzo-soprano Susan Graham will headline a show that includes soprano Kristin Clayton. They'll perform Jake Heggie's 'At the Statue of Venus.'

Wetenhall didn't hesitate when asked what he'd like patrons to see when they first walk inside.

WETENHALL: The first is a sense of wonder. It's so spectacular, and it really brings visitors back into the 18th century. It's a rococo building, with the gilding and the ornament and the lighting. It all brings one back into the 18th century. And so the first feeling is just a feeling of wow, this is special and spectacular.

The theater plans to host theater, music, dance and film beginning in the fall.

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