Rhapsody in the maze

From black-tie opera under frescoes to quartets on the cobblestones, Rob McFarland explores a living Venetian legacy.

VENICE'S premier concert venue is the Teatro La Fenice, a spectacular theatre whose interior is a decadent ensemble of frescoed ceilings, plush red velvet and gilded artwork. Over its tumultuous 218-year history, it's been the site of many famous operatic premieres as well as twice being burnt to the ground and completely rebuilt.

Unfortunately, even if you're lucky enough to be in the city when something is playing here, tickets can be expensive and devilishly difficult to come by. It's still worth taking a tour of the theatre but if you'd like to give your visit a musical accompaniment, you'll need to look elsewhere. Thankfully, there are a good range of options. Tucked away among the city's maze-like network of alleyways, bridges and canals are some delightful venues in which orchestras and opera singers perform on a regular basis. Here are some of the best:

Palatial performances

Imagine being invited to a concert in an opulent 15th-century palace on the Grand Canal by a wealthy Venetian duke. This is how you'll feel when you ascend the candlelit stairs of the Palazzo Barbarigo Minotto to enjoy an evening of opera and classical music courtesy of Musica a Palazzo. At the end of a quiet canal-side alleyway about a 10-minute walk from St Mark's Square, this palace is the atmospheric setting for operas such as Verdi's La Traviata and Rossini's The Barber of Seville, as well as a compilation of famous arias titled Love Duets.

The first act is held in the palace's grand reception room, which has an impressive frescoed ceiling by Venetian painter Tiepolo and walls decorated with ornate stucco plasterwork. The audience of about 30 people sits in semicircular rows around the four-piece ensemble, who are immaculately dressed in black tie and evening gowns. The program varies slightly for each performance but for the Love Duets concert you can expect a selection of arias from La Traviata, La Boheme and Cavalleria Rusticana, among others, interspersed with classical and chamber music.

Hearing professional opera singers at close quarters is a magical experience and the intimate space encourages an interactive performance. There are dramatic entrances through side doors; passionate arguments and love scenes; and graceful exits as the performers waltz, still singing, out into the hallway.

For the second act, we follow the singers into the bed chamber next door for another selection of arias that culminates in a stirring rendition of Puccini's O Soave Fanciulla from La Boheme.

However, there's still more to come and the two performers beckon us into the hallway for one final crowd-pleaser from La Traviata before we file, smiling and humming, back into the Venetian night.

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Tickets cost €50 ($69) and can be booked online or through a hotel concierge. See musicapalazzo.com.

A night of Four Seasons

Having long associated Vivaldi's The Four Seasons with my dentist's waiting room, I was keen to hear a rendition that didn't culminate in me having a root canal. And where better to listen to this perennial favourite than in the composer's birthplace itself?

Interpreti Veneziani is a small orchestra that regularly holds Vivaldi concerts in San Vidal church, close to the Accademia Bridge. With an interior dominated by grand marble pillars, beautiful sculptures and colourful murals, it's an impressive setting that's matched by some outstanding musicianship.

The first act runs through selected excerpts from Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter, with the lead taken by a different member of the orchestra. After a short interval, there's a piece by Italian composer Francesco Geminiani and an incredibly technical violin piece by Paganini, which is performed flawlessly by an annoyingly handsome musician who my girlfriend describes as "dreamy". It's rousing stuff and the five-minute standing ovation from the tourist-heavy crowd says it all.

Tickets cost €25 and can be bought online or at the venue. www.interpretiveneziani.com.

Free concerts

If you're visiting Venice on a budget or you just want to hear a snatch of something on your way home, it's well worth taking an evening stroll through the tourist magnet of St Mark's Square. Many of the cafes that line the square employ string quartets to serenade patrons while they dine and you'll often find two or three playing at the same time.

Unless you want to be stung $25 for a cup of coffee, under no circumstances sit down. Simply join the throng of freeloaders who congregate at the back and dance, laugh and clap along. It's an intoxicating atmosphere and it won't cost you a cent.

The writer was a guest of Virgin Atlantic, Rail Europe, Baglioni Hotels and the Italian Government Tourist Board.

Trip notes

Getting there

Virgin Atlantic flies daily from Sydney to London via Hong Kong with return fares starting at $1918. See virginatlantic.com.au. For deals on flights from London to Venice, see cheapflights.co.uk.

Staying there

The Luna Hotel Baglioni is Venice's oldest hotel and has a canal-front location next to St Mark's Square. Rooms from €495 ($680) a night. baglionihotels.com.

More information

italiantourism.com.au.

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