The Bavarian Palace Department is currently comprehensively restoring the Margravial Opera House. However, there is still an opportunity for visitors to see the opera house while the work is in progress …
"I have just visited the new opera house. I am delighted with it. The interior is almost complete. In this theatre Bibiena has combined the quintessence of the Italian and French styles. It must be said that there is no-one better in this field".
These lines penned by Margrave Wilhelmine to her brother Frederick the Great on 14 May 1748 merely hint at the extent to which Wilhelmine must have been impressed by the opera house that was by then nearly finished. Her pride is understandable, given the task the building's creators had been set. Wilhelmine and her husband Friedrich had decided that the small town in which they resided, far away from the main centres and trade routes of Europe, was to have one of the most magnificent opera houses in existence. In the surprisingly short building period of only four years, they made a dream that no-one would ever have thought realistic come true.
In 1743 the existing theatres were finally deemed to be so inadequate and out of keeping with margravial pretensions that in November of that year Wilhelmine wrote to her brother in Berlin and asked for the plans of his opera house "Unter den Linden", which the court architect Georg Wenzeslaus von Knobelsdorff had just completed. In the end, however, she decided against this, instead commissioning the Bayreuth court architect Joseph Saint-Pierre to design the building with its severe façade and Giuseppe Galli Bibiena and his son Carlo to create the interior. The interior is in the festive Italian baroque style, which was the hallmark of this brilliant theatre architect and differs radically from the light-hearted Bayreuth rococo style.
Just as Hermitage Old Palace can only be understood in the context of the ruler's elevated role, so the architectural and decorative structure of the Margravial Opera House can only be fully appreciated by imagining how the margravial couple would have made their entrance when they came for the performance of an opera.
They arrived before the regal-looking, neoclassical façade, which resembles an antique temple, to be greeted from the balcony with trumpets and kettledrums. The first room they entered was not however, as might be expected from the exterior, an equally splendid interior, but a low vestibule bare of decoration.
This leads into to a surprisingly lofty foyer, three floors high. From the three balconies on each side, spectators would have watched the arrival of the ruling couple as if they were appearing on a stage, although this is still not the theatre proper. Visitors enter the auditorium through a strangely narrow, dark passage without any form of decoration, to emerge into the realm of poetry. The real world is left outside and substituted for a world of fantasy.
Everything is simultaneously real and unreal. When the stage was decorated with backdrops, it combined with the auditorium to form a ruler's palace of vast proportions.
Angels and putti hover through the air, lifelike faces gaze out from the ornamental carving and there is an unobstructed view of the ceiling painting of Apollo and his retinue. They have just alighted on a cloud to find a new home in margravial Bayreuth.
The official occasion for the building of the opera house was the engagement in 1744 of Duke Carl Eugen von Württemberg to Wilhelmine and Friedrich's daughter Elisabeth Friederike Sophie, who was then only twelve.
The building was inaugurated before it was quite complete in September 1748, when the wedding festivities took place, with performances of the operas "Il trionfo d'Ezio" and "Artaxerxes". The libretto of the latter work was written by Wilhelmine herself. It was the most splendid festival that had ever been held in the margraviate.
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