||This article needs additional citations for verification. (April 2009)|
The Manoel Theatre is reputed to be Europe's third-oldest working theatre, and the oldest working theatre in the Commonwealth of Nations. Located on Old Theatre Street (Triq it-Teatru l-Antik) in Valletta, it is now Malta's National Theatre and home to the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra (Orkestra Filarmonika Nazzjonali).
The Manoel Theatre is a small, six-hundred and twenty-three seat venue, with a lavish, oval-shaped auditorium, three tiers of boxes constructed entirely of wood and decorated with 22-carat gold leaf, and a pale blue, trompe-l'oeil ceiling that resembles a round cupola.
Hidden behind an austere facade that is fully in keeping with Valletta's Mannerist architecture, is a richly adorned, glorious Rococo interior. Despite numerous alterations over the years, it retains many of its old architectural features, such as the white Carrara marble staircase, shell-shaped niches, and Viennese chandeliers. Two water reservoirs beneath the floor create an acoustic environment that is so precise, that the hushed page-turnings of an orchestra conductor can be heard clearly throughout the auditorium.
 Famous visitors
Countless celebrities have graced its stage, including Rosanna Carteri, Boris Christoff, Mirella Freni, Cecilia Gasdia, Louis Kentner, Flaviano Labò, Dame Moura Lympany, Sir Yehudi Menuhin, John Neville, Magda Olivero, Michael Ponti, Katia Ricciarelli, Mstislav Rostropovich, Dame Margaret Rutherford, Steve Hackett, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa and Sir Donald Wolfit. Visiting companies have included Nottingham Playhouse, the Comédie-Française and the Staatsballett Berlin (Berlin State Opera Ballet).
In 1731, António Manoel de Vilhena, the Portuguese Grand Master of the Knights of Malta, commissioned and personally funded the construction of this central building to serve as a Public Theatre "for the honest recreation of the people". This motto was inscribed above the main entrance to the theatre, which still reads today: "ad honestam populi oblectationem". With construction completed in 10 months - at a cost of 2,184 scudi - the first theatrical performance to be staged at the Manoel Theatre (then known as the Teatro Pubblico) was Scipione Maffei's classic tragedy Merope, on January 9, 1732. The players in that production were the Knights themselves, and the set was designed by the Knights' chief architect, Francois Mondion. Management of the theatre - and censorship of its performances - was entrusted to a senior Knight, known as the Protettore. Said to have been modelled after the Palermo Theatre, the auditorium of the Manoel Theatre was originally semi-circular or horseshoe shaped, with an illuminated parterre that served as a small dance floor. Over the course of the next half-century, it was the venue for an extensive repertoire of lyric operas performed by companies of visiting professionals or by amateur groups of Knights of St John, and French tragedies or Italian comedies. Works by Johann Adolf Hasse, Niccolò Piccinni and Baldassare Galuppi were extremely popular at the Teatro Pubblico during its early years. Nicolas Isouard's first known opera, Casaciello persguitato da un mago, was performed in this theatre in 1792, and Isouard became direcror of this theatre in 1798, when the French captured Malta, and premiered other operas by him in it.
The first impresario of whom we have record was Melchiorre Prevvost Lanarelli in 1736, and the last Giovanni Le Brun in 1866. From 1768 to 1770 the impresario was a woman, a certain Natala Farrugia. Grand Master Manoel fixed the rent to be paid by the Impresario at Sc. 320 per annum, of which Sc. 80 were paid for rent from Easter to August, Sc. 120 for the Autumn, and Sc. 120 from Christmas to Carnival. From the records we learn that when dances or veglioni (masked balls) were held in the theatre, the pit was raised by scaffolding to the level of the stage, and we find that on August 22, 1778, regulations were passed for the lighting of the theatre and corridors on these occasions, and the shading of lights, in any manner, was prohibited.
In 1778, to avoid scandal, theatre companies were prohibited from sleeping in the boxes of the theatre, a practice which was, apparently, common during that time. A few years later, in 1783, the Teatro Pubblico underwent considerable modification and decoration, based on a design by Natale Marini, of Rome:
We read that the model was displayed before the Inquisitor, many Grand Cresses and Knights, and such was the admiration, that the Commissioners of the Foundation decided to add a further two Louis, as a bonus, to Marini’s invoice of Sc. 49
In 1798, the Knights surrendered the Maltese Islands to the forces of Napoleon Bonaparte, whose commissioners radically reformed the civic governance and social fabric of Malta. For the first time in its history, management of the theatre was entrusted to a Maltese, Niccolò Isouard, who was a composer of international acclaim. Isouard's first work, Casaciello Perseguitato da un Mago, was performed at the Teatro Pubblico in 1793. Several of Isouard's own works, including Avviso ai Maritati and Artaserse, were performed at the Manoel during this time.
French rule over Malta was short-lived, and within two years, the Maltese Islands, and their crown jewel, the Grand Harbour, had passed into the hands of Great Britain. An English gentleman who accompanied Abercrombie’s expedition to Egypt in 1801, wrote:-
La Valette possesses an opera, small indeed, but neat, though much out of repair. Italy and Sicily supply it with very tolerable vocal performers, and it is a very agreeable entertainment for the garrison. It was excessively crowded every night by the officers of the expedition, to whom it was a great source of amusement. The price of admission is one shilling.
Renamed the "Teatro Reale", the theatre went through a series of enlargements and remodellings throughout the 19th century, most notably in 1812, when General Sir George Whitmore added today's gallery and proscenium, raised the ceiling by one full storey, added eight more boxes, bringing the total to 67, and transformed the auditorium to the oval shape that it has today. Further alterations were made in 1844, when the Manoel’s set designer, Ercolani, repainted the panels on the wooden boxes and had them gilded. Another stratum of silver leaf was added to the panels and ceiling in 1906. Throughout this time, the Teatro Reale was rented out to professional impresarios, who hosted nine-month opera seasons. It was visited by many foreign dignitaries, including Sir Walter Scott, and H.M. Queen Adelaide, the Queen Dowager, widow of William IV of England, who attended performances of Elisir d'Amore and Gemma di Vergy at the theatre, during her convalescence in Malta. Lucia di Lammermoor was given as a gala night in honour of the Queen Dowager, featuring soprano Camilla Darbois. English and Italian opera and operetta were the most popular productions at the Teatro Reale throughout the 19th century; however, the Maltese public was particularly supportive of operas by Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti and Verdi.
In 1861, The Teatro Reale was given by the Government on perpetual lease to Dr. Salvatore Mifsud and Anacleto Conti for an annual ground rent of £236,15, and in 1862 the directum dominium was sold to Emmanuele Scicluna for £7,833.6.8. Subsequent owners were Carmelo Arpa, a chemist (1889) and the Gollcher family (1906-7). This grand theatre fell into disuse in 1866, as a result of the construction of Edward Middleton Barry's magnificent new Royal Opera House, on Strada Reale, at the entrance to Valletta.
The fate of the Teatro Reale appeared to be sealed when it began to serve as a doss house for homeless and indigent citizens, who rented the stalls for a few pennies a night. However, in 1873, the Teatro Reale - now officially renamed the "Manoel Theatre" - enjoyed a brief new lease on life when the Royal Opera House was destroyed by fire. But by 1877, the Royal Opera House had been rebuilt, and once more, the Manoel Theatre was eclipsed, and gradually fell into disuse.
On December 27, 1922, January 6, 1923 and February 3, 1923, the Manoel Theatre was the venue for the first public airings of Malta's National Anthem, the l-Innu Malti, composed by Prof. Robert Samut with lyrics by Malta's national poet, Dun Karm Psaila.
During the Second World War, it served as emergency accommodation for victims of the constant bombardment by the Luftwaffe and the Reggia Aeronautica. In the early 20th century, it was also used intermittently as the venue for Carnival Balls and, for a period of about twenty years, as a movie theatre.
 Present day
Following the destruction of the Royal Opera House by Axis bombardment on April 7, 1942, the Manoel Theatre was expropriated by the Government of Malta in 1956, and was quickly restored to its former glory. It reopened in December 1960 with a performance of Coppélia by Ballet Rambert. In subsequent years the theatre foyer was enlarged by means of the annexation of the adjacent Palazzo Bonici, a grand 18th-century palace that was the former home of the Testaferrata Bonici family (the Maresi Testaferrata, Marchesi di San Vincenzo Ferreri and Baroni della Qlejjgħa), however on January 9, 2007, the Constitutional Court revoked the 1958 order of possession and use in respect of this property, and ordered that the property be returned to its original owner. This annex currently houses the theatre's bar and restaurant.
Today, the Manoel Theatre continues to put up a broad variety of theatrical productions in both English and Maltese, opera, musical recitals (including lunchtime recitals in Sala Isouard), poetry recitals, dramatic readings, and an annual Christmas pantomime, produced by the Malta Amateur Dramatic Club. Management of the theatre is currently entrusted to Chairman Wilfrid Kenely, Artistic Director Tony Cassar Darien, and Theatre Manager Charles Ferò.
The Manoel Theatre also houses a vibrant gift shop and a theatre museum, operated by the Fondazzjoni Patrimonju Malti.
- Victor Paul Borg, "Best of Malta", online at: www.victorborg.com
- Compendio del Giornale del Sac. Fra. Gaetano Rebout. R.M.L., Ms. 20.
- Scicluna, Sir Hannibal P., "Buildings and Fortifications of Valletta", in Malta and Gibraltar; London, W.H. & L. Collingridge, at p. 215
- Paul Xuereb, The Manoel Theatre, a short history, Valletta, Friends of the Manoel Theatre
- Denaro, Victor F., "The Manoel Theatre", Melita Historica 3 (1960) 1 (1-4).
- Diverse Scritture relative alla Fondazione Manoel, R.M.L., Treas. A. 32, cited by Denaro, ibid, at page 2.
- Walsh, Thomas, Journal of the late Campaign in Egypt, London, for T. Cadwell, Jnr., and W. Davies, 1803 page 30, cited by Denaro, ibid, at page 3.
- Rolandi, Ulderico, "Musica e Musicisti in Malta", in Archivio Storico di Malta, Vol. I, Fasc. I, page 20, cited by Denaro, ibid, at page 3.
- Records of Notary Luigi Vella of 5 May 1861, and of 9 September 1802, cited by Denaro, ibid, at page 4.