Other People’s Homes (7) Manoel Theater Valletta – Sometime Home To Beggars

No trip to Malta could be complete without a visit to Valletta’s little Manoel Theatre. One time home to beggars, down-and-outs and tramps now home to over 6,000 theater costumes.

Located in Old Theater Street, this fascinating purpose built baroque building is an architectural jewel. It is said to be the third oldest theater in Europe still in use and the oldest theater in the Commonwealth. It dates back to the earlier decades of the eighteenth century, when the Grandmaster of the Knights of St. John of that time, Antonio Manoel de Vilhena decided in 1731 to build a public theater ‘for the honest recreation of the people’ according to the Latin inscription above the doorway. The 650-seat auditorium is quite unlike a conventional 20th century theatre, originally u-shaped it was transformed to an oval at the beginning of the 19th century. With a tiny stage and orchestra https://www.haytheatre.com/ . pit, the stalls seat only 272, but above them and beneath the gilded ceiling and magnificent crystal chandeliers are three full tiers of boxes, including one very discreet grand-master’s box. Beneath the theater are two wells that serve to give the exceptional acoustics for which the theater is renowned. The original theater was smaller than the present one, as today’s gallery and proscenium were added in 1812. It was also narrower, as boxes were also situated on the ground floor. Patrons in those far off days used to dance to the pieces in production, so the parterre would be illuminated during performances. All the delicate frescoes are of Mediterranean scenes bordered in 22-carat gold leaf. Originally it was called ‘Public Theatre’, later it bore the title ‘Theatre Royal’ but, eventually in 1866 in tribute to its founder, it became and has remained the Manoel Theatre.

The first night of all first nights was on 9th January 1732 with a presentation of ‘Merope’ a grand tragedy in the classic style, by Scipione Maffei. The setting was designed by Francois Moudion, who was the architect of the Order of St John and it was played by the Knights. The theater was run by a Senior Knight of the Order who bore the title of ‘Protettore’ and managed the house generally approving each season’s program of plays. Nicolo Isouard became the ‘Protettore’ or Commissioner during the French occupation of Malta in the last two years of the eighteenth century but the troubled times bore their toll and the players could no longer bear the strains of war and dark days followed for the Manoel.

With the arrival of the British the theater came to life again and throughout the first half of the nineteenth century there was a nine-month season of opera each year from September to May. In 1812 when the theater was redecorated by British General Sir George Whitmore, the engineer responsible for the works introduced the proscenium arch, dismantled the ground floor stone boxes to erect wooden ones complete with decorated panels and raised the ceiling so that the theater became a storey higher. During this period there were nights of splendour like 4th December 1838 when Queen Adelaide, widow of King William IV came with cheers, anthems and a guard of honor to see a performance of ‘Lucia di Lamermoor’ by Gaetan Donizette.

Strangely it was the very prosperity of the latter years of the nineteenth century which brought the eclipse of the Manoel Theatre. The large garrison, the fleet and an increasing number of tourists rendered the theater inadequate and in 1861 it became private property. With the proceeds of the sale the Royal Opera House was built and Grandmaster Antonio de Vilhena’s little house fell into disuse and served as a home to beggars. Some of the old glory returned when the Royal Opera House was destroyed by fire in 1873. Grand opera replaced the evicted beggars until the Opera house was reconstructed and then the once loved little place in Theater Street looked to be on its deathbed. It served fitfully as a dance hall and, in this century as a cinema. But then once more the fate of the Opera House brought revival to the Manoel when the former was completely destroyed in the Second World War. Dreams of bringing the Manoel back to life turned to reality when the Malta Government acquired the building in response to public appeal. Experts from Britain and Italy were called in and under their supervision and with loving care the delicate process of restoration was carried out. On one splendid December night in 1960 the famous Ballet Rambert Company’s presented ‘Coppelia’ at the grand opening performance.

Some 40 years later and the theater is now in the fourth phase of another restoration project that includes bringing out the original shades of blue on the three layers of panels on the flat ceiling which are darker towards the border and lighter in the center – a visual effect which, when seen from below, gives a trompe-l’oeuil effect of a round cupola, similar to the technique used.

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