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June 2008

A Relic of Courtly Entertainment

The Old Residence theater

After two years of reconstruction work, the Cuvilliés Theater—Munich’s oldest and most beautiful opera house—will open its doors to the public again this month. Even though the auditorium will gleam with its original 18th-century grandeur, it is the only remaining part of the theater. The opera house itself was relocated and rebuilt 50 years ago, which explains its hidden location in the Brunnenhof of the Residence.
Before 1945, the Cuvilliés Theater stood adjacent to the Residence, in the spot where the new Residence Theater building resides today. Commissioned by Elector Max Joseph III in 1751, the design of the opera house was assigned to Françoise Cuvilliés. The architect enjoyed a great reputation at that time. His work was in demand by many German royals and clerics after his successful completion of the interior of the Residence and Nymphenburg castle’s Amalienburg on behalf of the Munich court. Cuvilliés was a purveyor of Bavarian rococo, and the old Residence Theater was a stunning example of his mastery in this area. The auditorium, which still exists with its horseshoe-shaped floor plan, consists of four circles divided into boxes. According to the common 17th-century Italian model, the circles were an expression of the absolutist class society, and the audience members’ respective social status was marked by the box ornaments. The ground circle—where the city nobility used to be seated—is only discreetly adorned. The first circle—the piano nobile for the high nobility—boasts beautiful gold-plated carvings. The pillars of each box are supported by two figurines allegorizing the four seasons. Flanking the Electoral Box, a couple wearing a floral headgear symbolizes Spring. The “Summer” couple at the third box—flanking the Electoral seating area—is crowned by grain ears. Grapes and vines stand for Autumn, which is embodied at the fifth box on each side. A couple with fur hats and coats stand for Winter. All boxes are topped by flowers, except for the two winter boxes, where icicles replace the floral decoration. Another ornamental highlight are the carved red rags, spectacular for their realistic imitation of cloth, which seem to be loosely draped on the breast of each box. The second circle used to be reserved for the lower nobility. Nonetheless, numerous sculptures beautify the balustrade here as well. In this area, the statuettes represent the four elements, Greek gods, earthly wealth and the continents. Relief carvings of musical instruments enrich the breast fields upon which the sculptures stand. Court officials were seated in the third circle. Accordingly, the ornaments’ design there is comparatively simple.
Simplicity, however, has a flexible definition in this rococo auditorium. The tremendous decoration is overwhelming in its rich details. Carvings and paintings realistically copy marble and cloth. Even the curtain framing the stage is a wooden replica, which imitates a gathered velvet curtain to the tiniest fold. But it was not only a matter of shifting taste that soured the public’s opinion of this rococo gem just a few decades after the theater’s 1753 completion. Its walls had no room for the rising bourgeoisie. The public was not willing to accept the strict social order stipulated by the ornaments and divisions of the theater’s circles. By 1819, the Residence Theater stood in the shadow of the Nationaltheater, the mission of which was to entertain a broad public. Only sporadic performances were being staged at the rococo hall when the peak of privatization was reached. Ludwig II—the capricious architect of Neuschwanstein castle—ordered performances to be staged exclusively for himself. It was only at the end of the 19th century that the small opera house was rediscovered. The Nationaltheater ensemble used the intimate space to perform productions that would not be able to convey the same intensity on the large stage. An additional innovation in 1896 also revived the Residence Theater’s reputation as a performance site, when the first turning stage in the Western hemisphere was installed. (Only Japanese theaters had previously utilized a similar installation.)
But then, the dark clouds of war loomed ahead. Thanks to the insight of the Bavarian Cultural Administration, the theater’s precious wooden décor was removed and put into storage. As if by prophecy, in March 1944 a bomb exploded in the stage area and most of the theater was destroyed. Until 1948, the original foundation walls—black with smoke—remained untouched, when city officials decided to build a new Residence Theater on the remaining ruin. This new theater, though, had nothing in common with its predecessor and was intended for drama plays only. The old Residence Theater was later reinstalled within the premises of the Residence. In honor of its prominent archi- tect, it is known as the Cuvilliés Theater today. On June 14, 1958—coinciding with the 800-year anniversary celebrations of Munich —the Cuvilliés Theater opened with a per- formance of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro at its new location. This year on June 14, the small opera house will once again cel- ebrate Munich’s birthday, and its reopening, with Ideomeneo by Mozart. After that, performances by the Bavarian State Opera and the Staatsschauspiel (Bavarian State Theater) will frequently be staged in the historic surroundings of the rococo theater. For a schedule of performances, see MUNICH FOUND’s What’s up pages. <<<

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