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Studies in Maltese Architecture
The Manoel Theatre
The Manoel Theatre , or as usually referred to in the Maltese language, 'Teatru Manoel', is one of the most important and significant monuments residing in Malta since it a very old theatre amongst the other few in all of Europe. This Theatre stretches back to the 18th century when it was inaugurated in January of 1732 in the heart of Valletta, which means it has survived a long period of histories and now it holds within it a heritage which is irreplaceable and unique.
Dating back to the early years of the 18th century, the Grandmaster of the Order of Malta at that time was Grandmaster Antonio Manoel de Vilhena. As a ruler, he planned and constructed various military and civil buildings, such as the fort in Marsamxett known as Fort Manoel. Fortunately, at that time, the Grandmaster started to acknowledge theatrical performances by the Italian knights of the Order of St. John (in their auberge), as well as a Maltese group that used to play comedies and musical entertainment, (in the same auberge) some of which were quite successful. Therefore Grandmaster Antonio Manoel de Vilhena set up a foundation (Fondazione Manoel) which decided to purchase two houses in Strada del Carmine, now known as 'Triq it-Teatru l-Antik', at the cost of 2,186 scudi so that a new theatre could be built at this location.
Francois Mondion is said to have been one of the senior architects employed by Grandmaster Vilhena, that designed and built the new theatre, but there is still doubt and uncertainty regarding who the actual architect of the theatre was. On the 16th of March 1731, work started on site which was of an area of 94.5 square canes, which was a Maltese unit of measurement used at that time and results to approximately 414 m². Since many years have passed since the day it was built, the aesthetics, facade and shape are without any doubt different from what had been originally constructed in 1732. However, it can still be pointed out that there is a great probability that it might have been influenced by two theatres in Palermo at that time. Also, it is clear that the original shape of the auditorium was in the form of a U, being described (by De Lucca and Tonna) as slightly retrograde for its time, with the stage being projected by two straight sides.
The contemporary document Cabreo Vilhena describes the interior part of the theatre as it was formatted originally, having a total of 39 boxes and a pit furnished with benches. The boxes were divided into three tiers: the first tier being used by the grandmaster's pages; the second tier was used by the grandmaster and his retinue; and the third tier was known as 'the gods' where the seats are quite high and distant from the stage. A number of contraptions and machines used to make scenes even more divine and spectacular where found on the same level of 'the gods' tier.
The Manoel Theatre was and still is a theatre which functions like many others with some of its parts being the wings and backdrop, as well as "a store room for the lamps that illuminated the auditorium". The wing is the area and part of the stage which is used by the performer to prepare to enter and is also used as a storage space for set scenery and technical equipment. Obviously, this part of the theatre is masked by numerous long drapes for privacy. On the other hand, the backdrop was the background to any scene of a stage set. Manoel Theatre also had: the main entrance; the stage; a small room for guests (saletta); a corridor in the form of a U-shape; and a cellar found below the stage. As can be seen by the photo of the original facade of the theatre below, two majestic pillars flanked the front door and supported the balcony above it. The whole Manoel Theatre was surprisingly finished and completed after a quick 10 months.
At the early times of Manoel Theatre's inauguration, the baroque style was flourishing and at its highest point in Europe. Architecture was not the only important factor during baroque time but other factors should be considered. Performing arts such as opera itself were becoming very important during this time and could be categorized into two parts: 'opera seria' and 'opera buffa'. This means that great performances and compositions were expected to come with this new theatre, also with the arrival of famous composers.
The 19th of January 1732 marked an important date for the Manoel Theatre since the first performance was held on this day. 'Merope' (as it was called) depicted tragedies of that century and was acted by the Italian knights of the Order themselves as a sign of respect and noble work chosen for the inauguration of the theatre. Following this performance, were two comedies going by the name of 'Il Giocatore Disperato' and 'Don Pilone'. Also, other performances were held during this time, mostly comedies, but unfortunately their names are unknown so not much information is available about them. It is important to note that from such early times the theatre started to be used for other activities such as a venue for carnival balls. During the rule of Vilhena, there are no more accounts of theatrical compositions and performances but we do have the memoirs of Carlo Goldoni which do give us an idea of how it felt like to be in the Manoel Theatre.
Succession to Vilhena's rule was Despuig who never attended the theatre for his own reasons, but after him there was the powerful Grandmaster Manoel de Pinto Fonseca who was so in love with theatre and performance arts that three days after he was elected he attended an opera at the theatre. It is fundamental to remember that during the 18th century Manoel Theatre was one of the very few places where the knights and certain types of people could be entertained. Priests were also keen on holding their own performances and plays, even though at these times they only accepted men to attend their plays. Grandmaster Pinto de Fonseca went to the theatre for the last time at the age of 92 showing the great love and respect he had for this type of art.
Giovanni Artuffo presented and introduced numerous operas by three different composers in the early 1750s. All of their works were admired by the knights and the Maltese people (less sophisticated but still enthusiastic about the opera itself). Just one or very few non-operatic works were performed during this period. It is also notable that the years 1768-70 a woman was given the impresa which happens very rarely, in fact she was the only woman to be given such power during that century. Also, a few years later Natale Marini made a plan and model of the theatre's interior and stage since the theatre was under continuous wear but there is no record showing restorative work. This century marks the introduction of a young talent Nicolo Isuoard who was set to become one of Paris' most popular composers of comic opera later on.
In 1796 the French arrived and took over Malta, and Napoleon expelled the Order of St. John from Malta in 1798, so the theatre had been leased to four persons. The invasion of the French caused some immediate problems since the Italian singers and musicians forming part of the opera of Manoel Theatre were obliged to stay in Malta, so they wanted an increase in their wage. The prices and wages which were creating the problems were soon fixed and taken care of. In September 1798, Nicolo Isouard was appointed commissioner for theatre whilst Pietro Paolo Muscat became the sole impresario as he bought all the shares. During this period, Manoel Theatre was facing a lot of problems and was at a time of crisis, with the attendance at the theatre most probably declining since the singers were not being changed and the garrison started to lose interest. With all these problematic situations, Isouard was kept busy most of the time trying to find a solution to improve the situation.
In 1799 the theatre got involuntarily involved in a horrible episode in Maltese history when the Maltese were planning to attack and ambush the French within the walls of Valletta itself. Manoel Theatre got involved in the story because Vaubois ordered Isouard to put on a show on a Friday (a day when no operas or comedies were ever performed) to act as a distraction for the French. However, the plan was discovered and several conspirators were executed in the square in front of the Magisterial Palace. By the early 1800s, the Italian troupe had had enough and did not want to perform anymore, and so the theatre was forced to close with the departure of the Italians from Valletta. Manoel Theatre was then reopened and a significant event occurred when it was decided that a Maltese drama group was to perform regularly inside the theatre. This was quite a significant step in Maltese history. In 1800, the French were driven to a point where they could not reside in Malta anymore, (with the help of the British) so they decided to leave, taking with them Nicolo Isuardo who was regarded as a traitor and never to return to Malta.
After assisting to expel the French, the British found themselves sovereign of the Maltese Islands. Unfortunately, during the departure of the French and the early 1801, no performances seem to have taken place inside Theatre Manoel but at least it was certainly used for the organization of balls since Aeneas Anderson tells us that he attended a public ball at the Opera House during this period. Italian opera is reintroduced once again and the performances are described as great entertainment with just a few small problems. Also the fact that not everyone could enter the theatre or choose his place was getting on some people's nerves.
In 1812, George Whitmore of the Royal Engineers was "to restore the building thoroughly, to increase the number of boxes ... and to decorate the entire building in a modern, simple and elegant fashion". Oakes and Whitmore had a large influence on the aesthetics of the theatre as it is nowadays since they did fix and change quite a lot of parts. In fact, the height of the building was raised higher with a new roof being built, the floor of the pit was re-laid, the brackets were removed and the boxes were opened up for better visibility, and a fourth tier was added. Also, the dressing rooms for performers was increased and the stage enlarged. This resulted in the auditorium having an oval shape, which is still present with that same shape nowadays.
The British made sure to reintroduce the protettore, which was occupied by a citizen of high standing, and the also reintroduced the system of appointing an impresario, with the first impresarios being three. Impresarios had quite a risky business with the risk of barely making any money since they had provide entertainment and performances all the time throughout the whole year. These apart from having to pay the rent, had to hire singers and dancers to come to Malta which could lead to economical struggles. In fact, during 1817-18 the finances for Manoel Theatre were so bad that both the rent and the admission prices were reduced.
The young British officers, as were the knights, needed to use the free time they had, so for some of them theatre was their pastime. We do have accounts of information about numerous plays in English which were held at the Manuel Theatre such as the famous work The Clandestine Marriage by Colman and Garrick. The 19th century also marks another important milestone in native Maltese drama because plays started to be performed in Maltese language as described by the British officer Anderson. The first full length play was called 'Caterina, ix-Xbejba tal-Irdum'. Opera, on the other hand, was deemed as more important during the British rule, it was the reigning genre. The number of new operas to be performed per year settled at four and both opera seria and opera buffa performed in the early decades. A number of singers were so loved and respected a lot by the audience as were Camilla Darbois and Lorenzo Del Riccio amongst some others, to the point that they ended up settling in Malta (as they were foreign). One should also remember that during their reign, Manoel theatre was used for a number of great occasions as was done for the return of Governor Sir Thomas Maitland.
Later along the 19th century, Manoel Theatre had become such a burden on the government because of impresarios and the fact that the theatre was now an aged building with too many repairs to be done, it was agreed that a new opera house (The Royal Opera house) was to be built. This led to the Manoel Theatre falling into private hands when Anacleto Conti decided to buy Mifsud's half share and become the sole owner. By 1866 the Royal Opera House was ready to be used and Manoel Theatre ready to be abandoned for good. Manoel Theatre was also stripped from its title ( Theatre Royal ) and named after the Grandmaster Antonio Manoel de Vilhena. Between 1866 and 1873, Manoel Theatre had its downfall, it was barely used and when used only for plays by Maltese amateurs. Since it was barely used, no maintenance, repairs or refurbishing were done and it continued to deteriorate.
In 1873, a tragedy occurred in Valletta when the Royal Opera House was unfortunately destroyed and beyond repair. At least from this tragedy, Malta regained back a forgotten gem, that is the Manoel Theatre. Since operas and plays desperately needed a reasonably good place to be performed, what better choice was there than the Manoel Theatre? Conti (the owner of the theatre) could not believe his luck when his theatre started to be used and after some time also repaired. What actually did save the theatre from going downhill for good was the new genre of theatre, called 'operetta'. Since Manoel Theatre had long been unused as a proper theatre, its owners had to make a number of attempts at re-establishing it as an opera house. Fortunately, they managed to arrange the theatre for a number of seasons and the works started to increase, consequently leading to a successful and positive season.
In 1882, Arpa decided to purchase the Manoel Theatre from Conti and after some time realized that something had to be done to compete with the Rjal, so many repairs and redecorations were undertaken. On a positive note, Manoel Theatre had some very successful seasons at the end of the 1880s, one of the most important plays being 'Birichino al Teatro'. After some years, Arpa could not pay back the funds he borrowed from G. Gollcher, and so Gollcher decided to take legal actions and buy the theatre himself. The Gollchers did make some few alterations and redecorations for the better since they managed the theatre themselves for several more years.
The MADC, which is a popular drama group that formed in 1910 with the merger of two groups of drama, used to perform a lot in Manoel Theatre and inspired many other groups. In the 20th century, 'Romanticismo' was repeated a number of times in the theatre and after some time Manoel Theatre also became a cinema but live theatre was not banished. The Second World War did slightly slow down Manoel Theatre, but surprisingly compositions were still being shown and people were still attending the theatre to be entertained.
The Maltese Government, at that time Malta Labour Party, decided to buy back Manoel Theatre so as to preserve it and its historical heritage. When the theatre was acquired, Vera Lindsay and Richard Southmen were commissioned to give recommendations on the revival of the Manoel Theatre. Numerous amount of changes and alterations had to be done so refurbishment started immediately. In 1960 the first Manoel Theatre management committee was set up and they had to make sure that the opening would be a truly great one. Fortunately, the opening was a successful event.
Nowadays, Manoel Theatre has continued to live up to its expectations and better since it continues to display many theatrical productions and performances both in the Maltese and English language, with opera being fundamentally important, drama, dancing, musical shows, and the annual MADC Christmas pantomime. The Manoel Theatre has been home to countless celebrities and amazing talents such as Joseph Callejla, Boris Christoff, Louis Kenter, John Neville and many others. The theatre management committee chairman right now is Michael Grech and the deputy chairman Kenneth Zammit. The theatre also has a museum (which shows the history of the place), and a gift shop. It is amazing to see that this theatre managed to survived through all these years, all this history residing within just one building. It has such great intrinsic value, not only to us but also to the whole of Europe, that it should be taken care of and preserved for the longest time possible.