By DON MILNE



The phoenix is set to rise, yet again, from its ashes.



Like the mythical bird from which it gets its name, Teatro La Fenice in Venice will be back presenting opera this weekend, eight years after it was destroyed by fire.



Fittingly, the reopening work will be Verdi's masterpiece La Traviata, which had its first performance in La Fenice in 1853.

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Many people hoped the theatre would be ready for the opera based on Dumas' play La Dame aux Camelias on March 6 last year - the exact 150th anniversary of La Traviata's premiere.



In fact, the Italian Government originally pledged to have the historic house (built in 1792 and burned down and restored in 1837) back in action within two or three years.



But contractor problems, cost overruns and general incompetence (some said corruption) saw the reopening put off time and again.



In 1997 Massimo Cacciari, mayor at the time of the fire, announced it would be rebuilt by 2000.



A year later the Venice deputy prosecutor said Mayor Cacciari bore overall responsibility for serious shortcomings in the running of the theatre, which contributed culpably to its destruction.



Early in 1999, authorities laid formal charges against two electricians working in the theatre at the time of the fire; they had been in prison for close on two years, on suspicion of arson.



Charges were also laid against Mayor Cacciari and seven others.



By August 2000, the projected completion date had slipped to some time in 2002.



In March the following year, the two electricians were convicted and sentenced to six and seven years in prison. Prosecutors argued that they had started the fire deliberately, to avoid paying a fine for delays in their rewiring work.



The mayor and other defendants were found not guilty of negligence.



Last December saw a gala concert in the theatre that attracted the Italian President and famous names from all over Europe.



"The great Fenice Theatre is given back to Italy and the world," proclaimed the new mayor, Paolo Costa.



But even then it was still not ready for opera. The acoustics, which had previously been outstanding, had to be refined, and stagehands needed to learn how to work the new, state-of-the-art machinery.



On Saturday, it will once more be packed with a glittering audience, as Lorin Maazel cues the orchestra for the poignant opening bars of La Traviata.



Two sopranos, Patrizia Ciofi and Maria Luigia Borsi, will sing Violetta Valery over the eight-performance series, directed by Robert Carsen.



La Fenice's season continues until June, with productions of Massenet's Le Roide Lahore, Rossini's Maometto Secundo, Wagner's Parsifal, Donizetti's Pia de Tolomei and Richard Strauss' Daphne - a procession of operas that, Parsifal aside, are rarely seen.



The historic theatre was first built to replace Teatro San Benedetto, which also succumbed to a fiery fate.



A competition was held for its design, and Giantonio Selva came up with the first neoclassical building in Venice. Facing a plaza, it had its own canal, dug to provide backstage access.



That might have seemed an advantage, in the event of fire. But when it struck for a second time, the surrounding canals had been drained to clear them of decades of silt. Water was pumped from the Grand Canal, more than 150m away; it was too little, too late. Venetians muttered darkly about the bad (good?) timing.



La Fenice had a capacity of 1500 inside a traditional horseshoe shape, elegantly gold and blue, "sumptuous and positively jewel-like", according to one diva who performed there.



Others were not so enthusiastic. Igor Stravinsky's wife, Vera, who attended the premiere of The Rake's Progress in 1951, said that the "plush [of the stalls] seems to have had chicken or rather mothpox ... "



Those sitting nearer the stage, she noted disdainfully, faced in the wrong direction "as if their ears were encased in their legs and abdomens, like grasshoppers".



The latest restoration, some critics have carped, has certainly achieved authenticity, but without easing such discomfort.



Still, La Fenice's place in the great opera houses of the world is assured, no matter how cramped some of the seating may be.



Besides La Traviata and The Rake's Progress, it has seen the premiere of many works, including Verdi's Attila, Ernani, Rigoletto and Simon Boccanegra; Bellini's Beatrice di Tenda and I Capuleti e I Montecchi (a variation on the Romeo and Juliet theme); Rossini's Semiramide and Tancredi; and Britten's The Turn of the Screw (but not, surprisingly, his Death in Venice).



For those who can't get to Venice and afford to pay up to 540 euros (a cool $1000) to see La Traviata, there is an option on DVD. Warner has a moving performance recorded in the theatre in 1992, before the fire.



Violetta is sung exceedingly well by Edita Gruberova, although she doesn't look and act the part as well as Angela Gheorghiu on the Decca set recorded at Covent Garden. Gheorghiu, singing the part for the first time, is simply stunning - one of the great performances on DVD.



But Gruberova is pretty good, and those without deep pockets get a chance to see the inside of the most famous phoenix in the world.



The full story of the theatre's destruction and resurrection might never be told; but what an opera it could make.