Angelica Fenech

The History of Opera in Malta - Part 2

In this second blog on the history of opera in Malta we shall take a look at the first 58 years of operatic music at Teatru Manoel which was inaugurated in 1732.
One of the oldest working theatres in Europe is the Teatru Manoel, built in 1731. It was founded by the Grand Master of the order, Fra Antonio Manoel de Vilhena. The Grand Master De Vilhena, was a ruler with a background in military and civil construction. He had set up a foundation called ' Fondazione Manoel', which included among its property a new fort in Marsamxett harbour named Fort Manoel, and the new theatre he decided to build : the Manoel Theatre.
For the process of the building of the Manoel theatre, two houses in Strada del Carmine ( now Old Theatre Street), were purchased by the Manoel foundation for the price of 2,186 scudi. The construction work started on 16th March , 1731 ,and it was completed in 10 months’ time.

It has a seating capacity of 600 and is a masterpiece of carpentry with three tiers of wooden boxes , gilded and painted, and a trompe-l’oeil ceiling.
It was regularly used by the knights for their amateur performances and operas, and was also used by visiting companies. Even though the theatre was meant for honest entertainment for the public, it was the young knights who dominated it, either as performers or as audience members.


The first opera was performed on the 19th January 1732 on its inauguration . It was a classic Italian tragedy, Francesco Scipione (marquise of Maffei)’s Merope. The performers in this production were the Knights themselves, and the set was designed by the Knights` chief architect, Francois Mondion. The management of the theatre and the censorship of the performances was taken care of by a knight who was called ' il protettore'.

Opera was performed by professionals , and it was performed as often as plays. At the start , works by the master of opera seria Johann Adolf Hasse were regularly performed, however later on ' opera buffa' caught on as well, with works by leading composers such as Niccolo' Piccinni, Baldassare Galuppi and Domenico Cimarosa.

In the 1750s the impresario Giovanni Artuffo, presented operas by G .B.Pergolesi , Tommaso Prota and Gaetano Latilla.
Madama Ciana by Latilla appeared at the theatre in 1743. Pergolesi's opera Il Prigioner Superbo was staged in 1751. Click here to view an excerpt from a modern rendition of this opera.

In 1765, when Baldassare Grech was impresario, the opera by Baldassare Galuppi Il Filosofo in Villa took place. It was the first production which included dancers who performed a choreographed work for this opera. During 1763-64, there were 3 operas that took place in the first season : La Contadina Spiritosa by Niccolo Antonio Zingarelli , Le Gelosie and Il Curioso del Suo Proprio Danno by Piccinini , all of which are comic operas.
The following season , Baldassare Grech presented Piccinin’s work La Buona Figliuola and its sequel La Buona Figliuola Maritata. To view a modern rendering of the first act of La Buona Figliuola click here.

During 1768-70, La Serva Astuta, a comic opera with music by Pasquale Errichelli (1730-1785) and Gioacchino Cocchi (1720-1804), was performed, together with Il Ratto della Sposa, which was an opera seria by Pietro Allessandro Guglielmi.

La Nitteti, was an opera performed during the short rule of the Grand Master Francisco Ximenes. The libretto is by Pietro Metastasio and music by Niccolo Piccini and Gioacchino Cocchi. It was recorded that it was performed by the Italian knights and that the Inquisitor and the Prior of the Church of St.John were amongst the audience. The music was admirable, the singers sang gracefully and they wore lavish costumes.

During the 1780's works by the operatic stars Domenico Cimarosa and Giovanni Paisello were in popular demand. In 1783 Paisello's Il Socrate Immaginario took place at the Manoel (Act1, Act 2), and in 1787 there was Cimarosa's opera Credulo e Baronessa. Another work by Paisello , La Grotta del Trofonio was performed in 1787, as well as La Virtuosa in Mergellina (music by Guglielmi,) . In 1789 , La Finta Galatea featured- a work by a minor composer Marcello Bernardini.

A particular event that was recorded during this period was the accademia that was held at the Manoel Theatre on the 19th of November 1790 .The programme consisted in : a part with instrumental music and some vocal items, which were operatic arias for soprano from an opera by Antonio Tozzi and basso buffo ( one by Giovanni Paisello) and a recitative and rondo for tenor from an opera by Pasquale Anfossi, a rondo for soprano ( one by Giuseppe Sarti) and rondo for tenor ( from an opera by Pasquale Anfossi) , a rondo for soprano ( one by Giuseppe Sarti) , a trio ( from Pasquale Anfossi's Zenobia in Palmira and as a closing performance a 'quartetto serio' from an opera by Guglielmi. The concert was organised by Franzi, an important German Violinist and composer.

In next week’s blog shall focus on the Operas performed at Teatru Manoel after 1790.