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Playing The Palace

Written by  Professor Barry Goldsmith

BTHDT
The 18th century should be known as the “Century of the European Palace Opera House.” Since many operas were commissioned by royalty, it’s only logical that they’d be performed in their backyard - or in their backyard theaters - royal palace opera houses. Many tourists spend an entire day in palace towns such as Versailles or Potsdam (near Berlin). Why not spend the evening, too, visiting the palace’s opera house for an evening performance?


Sadly most visitors are unaware that Versailles even has an opera house.  And if you love palace opera houses – Versailles has two.  Versailles’ magnificent grand opera house by Ange-Jacques Gabriel was built in 1770 to celebrate the wedding of the Dauphin (the future Louis XVI) to Marie Antoinette.   It’s attached to the large main palace so the show could go on with royal attendance no matter what the weather.  It’s late Baroque with Neoclassical elements – less angels and more straight lines.   And it has “Fake Architecture!” - wood imitating marble.  No, not to save money – Marie Antoinette was far from a tightwad.  Faux marble was widely used in 18th-century palace opera houses - even then architects knew that wood = better acoustics. (Marie Antoinette's Opera House, The smaller of Versaille's two opera houses pictured above.)
 
If you love palace opera houses and fully furnished palaces – head to Versailles’ Trianon Palaces to see the Grand Trianon and Marie Antoinette’s intimate Petit Trianon – another Gabriel masterpiece.  I prefer those two smaller Trianon Palaces – over the sparsely-furnished Grand Versailles Palace.  Besides having their own gardens, the exquisite Trianon Palaces have their own opera house.  While the main palace opera house was built for Marie Antoinette -- the Trianon Theater was built by Marie Antoinette.  Nearby Marie Antoinette played shepherdess in her “Hamlet” – her purposely built peasant village.  During inclement weather, Antoinette could take her sheep indoors and play shepherdess on stage.

Whereas palaces had throne rooms, where the monarch presided over subjects, the palace opera house had the Royal Box – where the monarch presided over their subjects -- theater-goers.  That is every royal palace except Potsdam’s Neuespalais – which lacked a royal box.  When not performing on stage, opera lover, Frederick the Great, liked to hide out amongst his subjects and watch performances with them.  This brings new meaning to the adage, “Coming down to their level.”  

Many palace opera houses also function as several museums rolled into one.  Palace opera houses are museums of music, museums of art, museums of technology, and even museums of fashion.   One of the best all-encompassing opera houses is Stockholm’s Drottnigholm’s Palace Theater built by opera lover, King Gustav III (who was even murdered in an opera house).  At Drottningholm Theater, you’ll find the original furniture, sets, backdrops, stage-moving equipment, and sound-effect equipment (still making “thunder”).  The Drottningholm Opera House still makes waves – using its original scenery.  This palace opera house served as the setting for Mozart’s “Magic Flute” in Mozart’s lifetime and as the setting for Igmar Bergman’s magical “Magic Flute” movie.

My favorite palace opera house is the Czech Republic’s Cesky Krumlov’s Castle Opera House, where in addition to all the above accouterments of Drottningholm, you’ll also find hundreds of original 18th-century costumes!

Most major cities have costume museums.  My favorites are New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, Paris’ Galliera, London’s Victoria & Albert, Bath’s Assembly, Madrid’s Museo del Traje, Santiago’s (Chile) Museo de la Moda.  Those great fashion museums have only a few 18th-century costumes.  The Cesky Krumolov Castle Opera House has hundreds of 18th-century fashions including some of the world’s best costumes.  (Cesky Krumlov should build a costume museum – with temperature control -- so they can permanently exhibit their textile treasure trove.)

If I’ve convinced you to visit palace opera houses and theaters – the number one country on your list should be the Czech Republic. In addition to the spectacular Cesky Krumlov  Castle Opera House there’s also the Baroque Litomysl Chateau Opera House and the recently restored and opened Valtice Chateau Opera House.

Now for a quick tour of Europe’s best palace opera houses.  It’s only logical that palace opera houses first came to prominence in the country that created opera – Italy.   Parma’s Farnese Palace has a 17th century opera house that still wows visitors. While guidebooks call it “Baroque” – it looks very Palladian -- similar to Vicenza’s almost Neoclassical 16th century Teatro Olimpico by Palladio. Sadly Parma’s was totally destroyed in WWII and quickly rebuilt right after the war. 

Naples early 18th-century San Carlo Opera House, part of Naples city palace, set precedence for later European palace opera houses with its “horseshoe” seating auditorium.  Many great Italian operas had their debut at San Carlo including one of my favorites, Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor.”

My favorite under-visited palace in Italy is just outside Naples, Caserta Palace.  It’s a smaller version of San Carlo also built by Farnese family (originating from Parma).   Being a Bourbon palace (the same family as the French kings), instead of having the traditional red plush seats and decoration, it has a light blue color scheme – the color of the Bourbons.  (The same interior color as the two Versailles theaters.)   However, it’s unique in all the world.  In fact, it’s out of this world – at least the indoor world.   Caserta Palace Opera House literally “breaks the fourth wall.”  In this case, the fourth wall is the wall behind the stage, which actually opens to reveal the palace garden as the backdrop!

You can easily spend half a day at Caserta Palace.  Go late in the day and attend a performance in the evening -- having dinner at nearby restaurant.  Another advantage of visiting a palace in the afternoon is the absence of crowds.  Schools, camps and other groups usually visit palaces and museums in the morning.  (That’s also why I time my museum visits during evening openings.)

When I visit Vienna’s magnificent Schoenbrunn Palace I do it late in the afternoon so I can also spend time at its superb coach museum.  There’s nothing like attending a Schoenbrunn Palace Opera House performance of a Mozart opera.  The setting couldn’t be more apropos,. Schoenbrunn is where Mozart, the child prodigy, played for -- and with -- Marie Antoninette -- impulsively jumping on her lap.

When I first visited Hungary, Godollo Palace, outside Budapest, was an army barracks.   Now it’s a beautifully restored palace with a recently restored theater.   The Viennese Empress Sisi (Emperor Franz Joseph’s consort) liked Godolo even more than her Viennese summer home, Schoenbrunn.

Being the daughter of the Bavarian Emperor, Sisi had the pleasure of attending the most magnificent Rococo (late Baroque) Palace Opera House.  Munich’s Cuvillies Theater where Mozart’s opera, “Idomeneo,” had its premiere.  Unlike the Farnese Palace Opera House in Parma, the Cuvillies Theater was spared when it was disassembled and stored for safe keeping during WWII. 

So far, almost all the palace opera houses were in the Baroque or late Baroque (Rococo) style.  One ruler, a woman, who changed her country for the better, also changed the architecture of her country – from Baroque to Neoclassical – Catherine the Great. Catherine added a theater to St. Petersburg’s Winter Palace (today’s Hermitage) in the simple, elegant and refined Neoclassical Style by the great Italian architect, Quarenghi (whose garden façade of his Alexander Palace inspired the garden façade of Buckingham Palace).  

Cesky Krumlov’s Palace’s theater is connected to the castle by a bridge.  The Hermitage Palace Opera House is also reached by a bridge -- spanning the Winter Canal.  However the Russian bridge also doubles as the theater’s lobby. Many operas had their debut in royal palace opera houses.  However, only one, the Hermitage Palace Theater, had opera premieres with the most unique librettos – written by a woman – Catherine the Great.

Russian palaces theaters were unique. While the nobility commissioned their palaces – their serfs designed them, physically built them, and performed in them. In fact, there were even serf orchestras and serf opera companies.   One of my favorite Russia Palaces – with my favorite Russian Palace Theater -- is in Moscow.  It’s the late 18thcentury Ostankino Palace commissioned by Count Nikolas Sheremetev – rumored to be the richest man in Russia.  While theaters used wood disguised as marble, Ostankino palace itself was built in wood disguised as stone.

If you are fascinated by the 18th century technology of Caserta Palace Opera House’s moving back wall, Moscow’s palace’s technology also amazes.  Ostankino’s Palace Theater doubled as the palace ballroom – with ballroom floor lowering to become the theater’s floor. The Ostankino Palace Opera House was designed by the count’s serf architects, built by the count’s serfs -- featuring a serf orchestra, serf actors, serf opera singers.   One of the count’s serf opera singers, Praskova Kovalyova, had the longest running performance in serf history – she married the count.  Who said there was no social mobility in the Russia of the Romanovs?

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