The Hermitage theatre
On the 30th of August 1756, a Decree on the establishment of a «Russian theatre for performances» in St. Petersburg was signed. Following the announcement of the decree, the first public wooden theatre on the Tsarina's field (now the Field of Mars) was opened near the Summer Gardens. Unfortunately, time and circumstances destroyed this first temple of Melpomene and Thalia. However, one witness of the era of the emergence of Russian theatre has remained. It is the Hermitage Theatre.
In its luxurious cradle, at the end of the 18th century, a Russian court professional theatre was born.
The Empress Catherine II loved the theatre with all her heart. The Maly Palace Theatre, designed by the architect Rastrelli, was created in the Winter Palace near the Empress's own chambers. However, the noisy proximity of the theatre began to cause annoyance and the Empress's growing family needed new living quarters. In 1783, Catherine ordered the closing of the Maly Theatre. At the same time, the architect Quarenghi received a commission to design a separate building for theatre performances. The talented artist pleased the Empress, having quickly coped with the assignment. He managed to incorporate a magnificent architectural building within the old
walls of the third and fourth Winter Palaces of Peter the Great. In two years the architect completed the decoration of the interiors, having joined the building with the Winter Palace by an arched passage.
The ceremonial opening of the Hermitage Theatre took place on November 22, 1785, giving both the actors and spectators a luxurious present. Apart from the magnificent interiors, the hall was noted for its excellent acoustic qualities. The spacious stage was well lit and equipped in keeping with the latest technical achievements, including «machines, trapdoors and transformers». There were makeup, dressing and orchestral rooms. Everything had been well thought out and equipped fittingly That evening, the Russian company performed for the guests of Catherine the Great one of the first comic operas, Miller-Magician, Swindler and Matchmaker by Ablesimov and Sokolovsky.
The repertoire was dependent on the tastes of the rulers and was drawn up taking into consideration the fact that, apart from the Russian company there were three others, German, French and Italian, including a ballet company Performances were given two or three times a week and consisted of two parts: a drama piece and an opera or a ballet. During the season, when the royal family lived in the city, there were up to one hundred such programmes. At that time, operas by Bortnyansky, Fomin and Sarti, comedies by Fonvizin, Moliere, and Goldoni, plays by Sumarokov, Voltaire and Catherine the Great her-self were presented. The Empress wrote several dozen topical dramas of an instructive character, mocking human vices and faults. She was also the author of the libretto for the opera, The Beginning ofOleg's Rule. It is worth noting that the costs for the staging of this historical work broke all standing production records. Some of the plays, after their premieres at the Hermitage Theatre, were staged in public municipal theatres that had been opened by that time.
A lot of attention was paid to the sets, lights and costumes. The costumes were specially made or chosen from the enomous 15,000-dress wardrobe that had survived the rule of Elizabeth I. The magnificent sets, that are now believed to have been lost forever, were created by the first designer of the Hermitage Theatre, Gonzaga, a native of Turin. He had gained renown for his works in Venice and was invited to come to St. Petersburg. Gonzaga worked at the Hermitage Theatre for about five years. During this time he created a large number of sets. Once, during Lent, when entertainments were prohibited, Catherine the Great organised a performance consisting only of the changing of the designer's sets and decorations to the accompaniment of orchestral music, in a spectacle that lasted for over two hours.
During the last four years of the 18th Century, the repertoire of the theatre was dramatically changed in keeping with the tastes of Paul I. First of all, Russian operas and works by Catherine the Great were taken off, the French opera reper-toire now occupying centre stage. Later, after Paul's death, the theatre stopped operating, the companies were either dissolved or began working in the city's public theatres. In the abandoned building, a refuge for ageing actors, and then a regimental barracks, were established.
Only in 1894, 98 years after Catherine's death, did Nicholas II order a repair of the Hermitage Theatre. During the course of this restoration, the wooden coverings were replaced with metal, the stage and floors were renovated, the spectators' benches were upholstered in dark red velvet, and the system of lighting for the hall and the stage lights was entirely changed. New ceremonial curtains were ornamented with the Emperor's symbols, becoming the focal point of the theatre's decorations. The foyer was restored by the architect Benois. At the beginning of the 1900s the theatre came back to life. Stars such as Pavlova, Kshesinskaya, Shalyapin and Sobinov all graced the stage here. Nicholas II invited his guests to listen to Parsifal by Wagner and Romanov's King ofJudea.
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