Dazzling Art and History: The 300-Year-Old Baroque Margravial Opera House

The Margravial Opera House.

The Margravial Opera House is a Baroque opera house in Bayreuth, Germany, built between 1745 and 1750. (Image: Dirk E Ellmer via Dreamstime)

The Margravial Opera House (German: Markgräfliches Opernhaus) is a Baroque opera house in Bayreuth, Germany, built between 1745 and 1750. It first opened in 1748 and has barely changed since, making it the best-preserved example of a free-standing Baroque court theater.

It was modeled on the greatest opera houses of the time in Vienna and Dresden. As a unique monument of 18th-century festival and music culture, it was inscribed by UNESCO on the World Cultural Heritage of Humanity list in 2012

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The opera’s history

Wilhelmine, Margravine of Brandenburg-Bayreuth, was King Frederick William I of Prussia’s eldest daughter and Frederick the Great’s sister. She was an ambitious polymath who composed music, wrote verses, and corresponded with Voltaire. Wilhelmine built Bayreuth’s intimate yet elaborate Margravial Opera House, one of Europe’s most outstanding surviving examples of Baroque theater architecture. 

The theater was built in September 1748 according to plans designed by the French architect Joseph Saint-Pierre for the lavish wedding of Wilhelmine’s only daughter, Elisabeth Friederike Sophie, and Duke Carl Eugen of Württemberg. The wedding was celebrated with two Italian operas, banquets, and theater performances in the newly constructed opera house.

The leading theater architect of the day, the Italian Giuseppe Galli Bibiena, who had previously worked for the Viennese imperial court, was commissioned to design the new opera house. Carlo Galli Bibiena, his son, was in charge of the project in Bayreuth and stayed at the court until Margravine’s death, designing numerous stage sets and festival decorations for the Margravial Opera House.

He also designed the reconstructed Baroque stage set that is currently on display. The front building and façade, designed by Bayreuth court architect Joseph Saint-Pierre, were completed only two years after the inauguration in 1748.

The Margravial Opera House stage. (Image: Mark Higgins via Dreamstime)

A masterwork of wood and canvas architecture

The Margravial Opera House is inspired by the Italian loge theatres of the time. The fully preserved loges tiers, mostly wood and canvas, are installed as a free-standing structure within the stone exterior. The auditorium and stage are the same.

The large stage portal at the back of the auditorium, framed by columns, faces the court loge. The sculptures in the loge, as well as those above the stage, honor the Hohenzollern dynasty and the theatre’s founders, Margrave Friedrich and Margravine Wilhelmine of Brandenburg-Bayreuth.

The theatre’s interior was built in record time, with some wooden architectural elements and sculptures prefabricated and painted elsewhere. A masterpiece of ephemeral festival architecture was completed in less than four years, from 1744 to 1748, under the direction of architects Giuseppe and Carlo Galli Bibiena. 

The restoration of the Baroque illusionist art 

The restoration, which lasted from 2013 to 2018, restored the auditorium’s original light and airy atmosphere and the illusionist painting’s overwhelming three-dimensional effect. The Margravial Opera House’s long-term restoration work has permanently preserved the Baroque era’s illusionist arta for future generations.

“Centimeter for centimeter, you can see that we got our money’s worth,” commented Thomas Rainer of the Bavarian Palace Department. He oversaw the renovation during a tour of the building in 2018. 

Along with the laborious conservation of the theater’s ornately painted, gilded surfaces, which required roughly 70,000 hours of work and increased the interior’s lightness and brightness, the proscenium has also been expanded to its original size after being shrunk during an earlier renovation.

The about 500-seat venue features new chairs that can be adjusted to the needs of the performance, and the lighting has been tastefully upgraded with LED bulbs that evoke the cozy warmth of candles. Behind the scenes, the stage equipment has been updated, the auditorium’s temperature has been controlled, and the building’s ceiling has recently been insulated.

The interior of the Margravial Opera House. (Image: Mark Higgins via Dreamstime)

An operatic treasure 

The Margravial Opera House, which is still used for performances today, is a box theatre made entirely of wood with lavish, carved, and painted decorations unlike any other in the world. Farinelli, a 1994 biopic, was shot in the Margravial Opera House. Until 2009, the theatre hosted the annual Bayreuther Osterfestival.

From 2000 to 2009, the theatre also hosted the Bayreuth Baroque festival, which featured performances of early operatic rarities. Andrea Bernasconi’s festa teatrale, L’huomo, to a libretto by Margravine Wilhelmine, was performed at the 2009 festival. 

The nearly 300-year-old opera theatre was shut down in October 2012 and reopened in 2018 following a six-year makeover that cost $36.6 million (29.6 million euros) and brought back some of its spectacular ornamental elements, murals, and trompe l’oeil effects to their former splendor.

The Margravial Opera House in Bayreuth is an unrivaled example of 18th-century courtly architecture and is regarded as one of the most important architectural monuments in history. 

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