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The Hermitage theatre

Natalia Rozhdestvenskaya

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.

The Hermitage Theatres, Page 2

At the beginning of the 20th century, a time of decay began. With the October revolution and the Civil War, society had little time for the theatre. The Hermitage Theatre was closed down, the transformers and sets, including those made by Gonzaga, were distributed amongst the houses of culture of trade unions, the hall itself was used as a site for meetings, and later it accommodated the scientific research lecture hall of the Hermitage.

In the 1980s, a general plan for the reconstruction of the State Hermitage was elaborated, and the implementation of that plan began with work on the theatre. Due to the repairs, which lasted from 1985 until 1991, the exteriors and interiors acquired their original palatial and magnificent appearance.

The comprehensive reconstruction brought the theatre back to life for the third time. The new stage equipment inspires the envy of the most advanced theatres, compris-ing powerful lighting, film projec-tors, five booths for simultaneous translation, high tech facilities and recording equipment.

There are about 200 concert programmes, including premieres and the theatre's repertoire, every year which always become an important event in the cultural life of St. Petersburg. Many outstanding modern musicians perform on the stage of the Hermitage Theatre. Richter gave concerts herein 1991 and 1993, Rostropovich played the Symphony of Peace with young musicians and Gorchakova and Obraztsova sang on this stage. The only time that the violin that once belonged to the great Nicolo Paganini came to Russia, it happened to be in the hands of Stadler at a concert in the Hermitage Theatre. Temirkanov's and Gergiev's symphonic orchestras have repeatedly appeared on the theatre's stage. In 1996, Chernushenko and the Capella artistic group showed two acts of the revived opera, The Beginning of Oleg's Rule. The St. Petersburg Camerata Orchestra (with its artistic director Sondetskis) that was recently awarded the honourable title of the Orchestra of the State Hermitage, began its creative life here and is now a regular attraction at the theatre. The famous international festival of chamber music, The Palaces of St. Petersburg, was born at the Hermitage Theatre, traditionally hosting its opening and closing ceremony on its stage. It is also the location for the concerts of the Musical Olympus festival of young laureates of international musical competitions.


Since 1997 , the State Philharmonia has been organising special seasonal concerts of chamber music in the Hermitage Theatre. Visits to the «palace» theatre have been included into prestigious cultural programmes developed by the largest hotels and travel agencies. The ballet troupe of the Mariinsky Theatre performs here in the summer, during the White Nights period, showing Giselle, Swan Lake and Chopiniana. I. Liepa and M. Liepa have both demonstrated their astonishing talents on this stage.

For several years a refined audience has been gathering here for classical concerts from the Debuts and Premieres in the Hermitage Theatre cycle. They are organised in collaboration with the Consulates General of Finland, France, Canada and Germany Visitors are introduced to the performance techniques of both the traditional and contemporary music of these countries. Such famed stars as the singer Katya Richarelli, the saxophonist Mandelchi, the Grifon chamber trio and many others have performed here during their tours.

Apart from musical festivals, the theatre hosts official meetings of the Hermitage employees, charitable New Year celebrations for children, scientific readings, press conferences, and ceremonial assemblies of the World Club of Petersburgers, the president of which is the director of the Hermitage, Mikhail Piotrovsky.

In the autumn of 2000, the unique Hermitage Theatre, the oldest remaining in the city celebrates its 215th anniversary It has seen it all: outstanding musicians, royal audiences, notable premieres, years of neglect and creative rebirth. In its third incarnation, the life of the Hermitage Theatre is a successful synthesis of celebrations and business activities. The constant daily work of the «court» theatre, alternates with glittering social occasions in the evenings. And whatever events may be hosted here, the organisers try to maintain the court traditions of the days of old: guests should feel comfortable and at home, though they must observe the golden rule of Catherine the Great, which states that «To leave all titles at the door, as well as hats and, most importantly swords. Seniority and haughtiness should also be left at the door». These are genuine words of wisdom for those who come to work, socialise and rest at the Hermitage Theatre.

The author would like to express his gratitude to the director of the Hermitage Theatre, Dmitri Vary gin, for his help in preparing this material.

(c) 2000