Angelica Fenech

The History of Opera in Malta - Part 4

In last week’s blog we concentrated on the operas performed at the Manoel Theatre during the 19th century. This week in the fourth blog in this series, we shall take a look at the construction of the Royal Opera House which opened in 1866 and the works performed there in the 19th Century.

The Manoel Theatre which was inaugurated in the year 1732, was becoming too small to accommodate the increasing number of opera lovers, therefore, the British authorities started preparing plans for the construction of a new opera house.

The Royal Opera House was built at the entrance of Valletta on the site of the Auberge d'Angleterre. Architect Edward M. Barry was entrusted with the preparation of the designs and in December 1860 Sir Adrian Dingli received the first plans dated November 24, 1860, for reference to the Council. It had an extraordinary exterior facade which was purposely decorated cost, around 60,000 sterling and covered a site of 206 feet (63 meters) by 112 feet (34 meters).

The opera house opened on the 9th October 1866, with Bellni's Opera , I Puritani. Click here to view a modern performance of this opera. The first opera season lasted from October to the following May with the following 16 operas: Un Ballo In Maschera (Giuseppe Verdi) , Il Barbiere di Siviglia, Crispino E La Comare( Luigi and Federico Ricci), L’ Ebreo (Giuseppe Apolloni), L’ Elisir d'Amore (Gaetano Donizetti), Ernani (Giuseppe Verdi), Gemma de Vergy (Gaetano Donizetti), Jone (by Errico Petrella) , Merope (Geminiano Giacomelli), Poliuto (Gaetano Donizetti), Rigoletto (Giuseppe Verdi), Robert le Diable (Giacomo Meyerbeer), La Traviata, (Giuseppe Verdi) Il Trovatore (Giuseppe Verdi) and Lucrezia Borgia (Gaetano Donizetti).

Each opera was performed more than once throughout the season . I puritani was in fact performed 18 times in all. This pattern followed throughout the existence of the Royal Opera House. The principal performers at the time were : Signa Luppi, Signa De Liso, Signori Serazzi, Pantallone, Della Terza and Del Riccio. Twenty-four-year-old Canadian-born Emma Albani sang there for the 1870–71 season in Lucia di Lammermoor and Il Barbiere di Siviglia.

On May 25th 1873, disaster struck. A fire destroyed the interior fittings and decorations of the opera house and part of the exterior of the building. This happened during a rehearsal of the new opera La Vergine del Castello composed by Mro Privitera , who had been invited to conduct his work in Malta. Part of the paper made scenery caught fire and few minutes later the whole building was ablaze. 3 days after the incident , the Council of the government appointed a committee, and they agreed on having the theatre rebuilt. It was reopened on 11th October 1877, and it featured Verdi's Opera Aida (this is one of monumental works by Verdi and is popular to the present day. Click here to view a modern rendition of the opera.)

The auditorium contained 97 boxes in tiers, and with pit stalls and gallery and had accommodation for more than 1000 persons. The saloon or crush-room was placed over the entrance hall and had five windows with balconies overlooking the terrace. The painting-room and necessary workshops were on the roof, which was constructed of steel trusses of a span of 64 feet.

The playbill for each following season was made up of a wide choice of operas predominantly popular Italian repertoire (Gaetano Donizetti, Vincenzo Bellini, Giachino Rossini, Giuseppe Verdi, Giacomo Puccini, Pietro Mascagni, Ruggero Leoncavallo, Umberto Giordano) as well as French (Charled Gounod, Jules Massenet, Ambroise Thomas, Georges Bizet) and Richard Wagner’s operas including Tannhauser. ,Lohengrin, and Die Walküre. Operas by Maltese composers were also performed. Such operas were the works of Paolino Vassallo's Amor Fatal, Frazir and, Edith Cavell) ,Paolo Nani's I Cavallieri di Malta and Agnese Visconti, Carlo Diacono‘s L'Alpino (click here to listen to the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Mro.Brian Schembri performing an intermezzo from said opera), and Carlo Flamingo’s Redenta.

In next week’s blog we shall take a look at the activities surrounding the Royal Opera House from the beginning of the twenthieth century till it’s untimely destruction on 7th of April, 1942.