In 1774, the San Benedetto Theater, which had been Venice's leading opera house for more than forty years, burned to the ground. No sooner had it been rebuilt than a legal dispute broke out between the company managing it and the owners, the Venier family. The issue was decided in favor of the Veniers. As a result, the theater company decided to build a new opera house of its own on the Campo San Fantin.
The construction began in June 1790, and by May 1792 the theater was completed. It was named "La Fenice", in reference to the company's survival, first of the fire, then of the loss of its former quarters. La Fenice was inaugurated on May 16, 1792 with an opera by Giovanni Paisiello entitled I Giochi di Agrigento.
From the beginning of the 19th century, La Fenice acquired a European reputation. Rossini mounted two major productions in the theater and Bellini had two operas premiered there. Donizetti, fresh from his triumphs in Milan and Naples, returned to Venice in 1836, after an absence of seventeen years.
In December 1836, disaster struck again when the theater was destroyed by fire. However, the theater was quickly rebuilt; La Fenice once again rose from its ashes to open its doors on the evening of December 26, 1837.
Giuseppe Verdi's association with La Fenice began in 1844, with a performance of Ernani during the Carnival season. Over the next thirteen years, the premieres of Attila, Rigoletto, La Traviata and Simon Boccanegra took place there.
During the First World War, La Fenice was closed, but reopened to again become the scene of much activity, attracting many of the world's greatest singers and conductors. In 1930, the Venice Biennale initiated the First International Festival of Contemporary Music, which brought such composers as Stravinsky and Britten, and more recently Berio, Nono and Bussotti, to write for La Fenice.
In 1996, the theater was closed for renovations when a fire broke out on 29 January. Arson was immediately suspected. In March 2001, a court in Venice found two electricians guilty of setting the fire. Enrico Carella and his cousin, Massimiliano Marchetti, appeared to have set the building ablaze because their company was facing heavy fines over delays in repair work. Carella, the company's owner, was sent to prison for seven years, while Marchetti received a six-year sentence.
After various delays, reconstruction began in earnest in 2001. In 650 days, a team of two hundred plasterers, artists, woodworkers, and other craftsman succeeded in recreating the ambience of the old theater at a cost of some € 90 million.
Critical response to the rebuilt La Fenice has been mixed. The music critic of the rightwing paper Il Tempo, Enrico Cavalotti, was satisfied. He found the colors a bit bright but the sound good and compact. For his colleague Dino Villatico of the leftwing La Repubblica, however, the acoustics of the new hall lacked resonance and the colors were painfully bright. He found it "kitsch, a fake imitation of the past". He said that "the city should have had the nerve to build a completely new theater; Venice betrayed its innovative past by ignoring it". However, for many Venetians, a painful wound in the historical, much-admired cityscape has been healed.