If you like to “touch” history of Poland, learn a lot just being in one place you should plan your visit to Warsaw, Poland and you mustn’t miss The Theatre Square which “accommodates” lots of historic spots. All of them just in one square.
Bordered on its right by the Late Baroque Blank Palace Plac Teatralny (The Theatre Square) is a major square. Located in downtown it has always been one of history`s most important places in my country. The origins of the square date back to the beginning of the 19th century, when a small square was established in 1818. From 1825 to 1832 the Grand Theatre building was constructed. When the city administration was relocated to the nearby Jabłonowski Palace, the square became a centre of city life. Various patriotic demonstrations took place there, including those at the time of the January Uprising and the Revolution of 1905. Both demonstrations were bloodily crushed by Russian authorities.
The Warsaw Grand Theatre – one of the biggest stages in the world
The most spectacular building which is located in The Theatre Square houses mainly The Grand Theatre (Teatr Wielki) and Polish National Opera (Opera Narodowa). If just for the “wow” factor, this is one of “the must-see” historical treasures in Warsaw. It happens to be officially one of the largest theatres in Europe and one of the biggest stages in the world. Besides The Grand Theatre and The National Opera, The National Theatre, The Ballet and The Theatre Museum is also located inside the building. Its magnificent classical façade, dating back to 1833, is the only original part to have survived World War II, but the post-war restoration and modernization completed in 1965 made it one of the most spectacular and well-equipped theatres in Europe.
The original Grand Theatre was constructed in 1825-1833, and designed by Italian architect Antonio Corazzi, in an on-site shopping and service complex called ‘Marywil’ (the name came from the name of Queen Marysieńka Sobieska) which was a project by Tylmon of Gameren. The opening was inaugurated by Rossini’s ‘Barber of Seville’ on February 24, 1833.
As an institution, the Grand Theatre has probably done more to represent Polish cultural life than any other. During all this time, Polish drama, opera and ballet were able to continue and often flourish. The imposing building houses an opulent 1,800-seat auditorium named after Stanisław Moniuszko, the father of Polish Opera, the 248-seat Emil Młynarski Auditorium and the National Museum, which is Poland’s only theatre museum.
Anywhere you look in Warsaw there is a history lesson in the making
The Grand Theatre and National Opera House complex is one such example. In its 183-year history it has overseen partition, occupation, destruction and, finally, freedom.
During the siege of Warsaw in 1939, the Grand Theatre was bombed and then almost completely burnt down, with only the classical façade surviving. Among the ruins, during the Warsaw Uprising, the Nazis shot civilians.
In the course of its reconstruction between 1945-1965, the building was expanded considerably according to a design by Bohdan Pniewski. He put large and elegant dressing rooms on the ground floor and a spacious foyer on the first floor; the audience now sits where the stage originally stood. The modern stage – one with great facilities and the world’s largest – was built on the square, which is adjacent to the theatre.
Back to the times of Vienna victory
But the history of Theatre Square, where the building of the Grand Theatre and Opera House stands today, goes back to the days when Poland’s King John III Sobieski (Jan III Sobieski) won the battle of Vienna against the Turks, thus saving Europe from the onslaught of Islam in 1683. His loving wife, Marysieńka, built a large commercial center, called Marywil, to commemorate the king’s victory. It was constructed at the end of the 17th century and consisted of a pentagonal baroque building modeled after the Place des Vosges and Place Dauphine in Paris. It contained shops and merchants’ houses, while the central square was used as a market. The building also served as a royal residence. In 1738 the complex was bought by the noble Załuski family and around 1744 it was converted by Antonina Zamoyska into a monastery. She was a founder of a church in Krzeszów and an order in Warsaw. Before the entire complex was demolished in 1825 to make room for the new Grand Theatre, additional four large houses were built in the marketplace and later the monks moved out and the building was converted into housing quarters.
For more than 170 years, the Grand Theatre in Warsaw has been the largest opera and ballet institution in Poland. It was built to provide a new venue for the existing opera, ballet and drama companies in Warsaw. The building was remodeled several times. Until 1918, while Poland was partitioned by foreign powers, it continued to fulfill an important cultural and political role in producing works by many Polish composers and choreographers, thereby upholding the tradition and cultural heritage of a country that had been wiped off the map for over 123 years.
Stanisław Moniuszko, several of whose operas were first performed there, including the famous “Halka” and “The Haunted Manor”, was the greatest 19th century figure in Polish music after Frederic Chopin. He was also director of the Warsaw Opera from 1858 until his death in 1872. Operas composed by a pianist and organist Władysław Żeleński, a pianist and composer, politician, and honoured spokesman for Polish independence Ignacy Jan Paderewski, a pianist and the most celebrated Polish composer of the early 20th century Karol Szymanowski and many other Polish composers were performed at the Grand Theatre, as well as ballet productions designed by Polish choreographers, including leading Roman Turczynowicz, Piotr Zajlich and Feliks Parnell. Also, major world opera and ballet classics were performed at the theatre by prominent Polish and foreign artists.
Opera in Poland is nearly as old as the one in Florence
Opera was imported to Poland by Prince Ladislaus IV Vasa (Władyslaw IV Waza) a mere twenty years after this art form first appeared in Florence. In 1628 he invited an Italian opera troupe to perform in Warsaw. When he ascended to the Polish throne in 1632, he created a theatre at the Royal Castle and commissioned an Italian troupe under the direction of Marco Scacchi to offer regular operatic performances there.
Towards the end of the 17th century, King John III Sobieski revived presentations of operas, and these were subsequently supported by King Augustus II, known as “The Strong”, and by King Augustus III, who commissioned the construction in Warsaw of the city’s first operatic building, the so-called Opernhaus (Operalnia – first public opera-theatre in Poland). Opera, theatre and ballet then truly flourished in Poland during the reign of country’s last monarch, Stanislaus Augustus Poniatowski (Stanisław August Poniatowski).
The National Theatre in Poland is 251 years old
Above-mentioned first public opera-theatre in Poland, The Operalnia in Warsaw, was opened on July 3, 1748. It was located in The Saxon Garden (at today’s intersection of Marszałkowska Street and Królewska Street) and functioned under royal patronage. The Operalnia’s building was erected in 1725 at the initiative of Augustus II, costing 5000 ducats, as a rectangular structure divided into three parts.
The lateral wing of the Theatre Square building occupies The National Theatre. It was founded 17 years after The Operalnia was opened, in 1765, during the Polish Enlightenment, by King Stanislau August Poniatowski. The National Theatre has had a checkered history. It first burnt down in 1919, then again during the war, and a third fire broke out in 1985. The rebuilding process took eleven years, and the stage has now four super modern sides and fully computerized machinery.
But let`s get back to 18th century. On November 19, 1765 His Royal Highness Stanislaw August Poniatowski’s Operatic Players presented their first performance of Józef Bielawski’s comedy “The Interlopers” (“Natręci”) based on a play by one of the greatest masters of comedy in Western literature Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, known by his stage name Molière. Since the Operatic Players were the first professional company to play in Polish, it has become a tradition to commemorate the date as that of the birth of Polish National Theatre.
Since 1774 on, opera, theatre and ballet performances were held in the Radziwiłł Palace (today the official home of Poland’s president). The first Polish opera was produced there on July 11, 1778, Maciej Kamieński’s “Poverty Made Happy” (Nędza uszczęśliwiona”), with Wojciech Bogusławski’s libretto based on a comedy by Franciszek Bohomolec. Known as the father of Polish National Theatre, Bogusławski was a renowned actor, singer, director, playwright and entrepreneur. Next, Bohomolec, a Polish dramatist, linguist, and theatrical reformer was one of the principal playwrights of the Polish Enlightenment.
In 1779-1833 performances took place in a new theatre building on Krasiński Square (Plac Krasińskich), later called the National Theatre. It was founded in 1765, during the Polish Enlightenment, by the country’s last monarch, Stanisław August Poniatowski. Also, at the National Theatre, from 1785 a troupe of His Majesty’s Dancers (headed by ballet masters François Gabriel Le Doux of Paris and Daniel Curz of Venice) became active. At this theatre, on March 17, 1830, Chopin premiered his Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor, Op. 11. Closed after the November 1830 Uprising, in 1924 the National Theatre was revived under the Second Polish Republic.
Under the Polish People’s Republic (1945–89), the quality of the Theatre’s productions was at times adversely affected by government pressures.
Splendid Building & Fantastic Theatre Square
The magnificent Grand Theater building standing today in the historic Theatre Square in Warsaw was totally rebuilt and expanded after the Germans bombed and burnt it down during World War II. It took a long time to rebuild as there were many other building priorities after the war to house all the displaced Varsovians after the Germans razed the city to the ground in retaliation for the Warsaw Uprising of 1944.
The opening of the rebuilt Grand Theatre took place on November 19, 1965. Commissioned for this inaugauration was ‘The Haunted Manor’ by Stanisław Moniuszko. In the Theatre Museum, visitors will find works of art and documents illustrating the history of Polish theatre, drama, opera and ballet dating from the 18th century.
It is said that it was then one of the most imposing and best-equipped state-of-the-art theatres in Europe and as I have already written, it had the biggest theater stage in the world. It has beautiful interiors, crystal chandeliers and a spatial foyer together with huge marble columns and beautiful mosaics. The Theatre Museum is located in the former main-floor ballrooms. There are two statues in front of the building — one of Wojciech Bogusławski, the father of the Polish National Theater and Stanisław Moniuszko, the father of the Polish National Opera.
In 2002, the facade was crowned with a statue of Apollo, which was consistent with the original intentions and plans by Antonio Corazzi; at the time, however, the statue could not be placed – along with many other decorative elements desired by the designer – because Tsar Nicholas I did not allow their inclusion, as he did not want the Polish National Opera to supercede the buildings in Russia. The creators of the modern quadriga are professors at the ASP (an art academy in Warsaw), Adam Myjak and Antoni Janusz Pastwa.
The Grand Theatre, Warsaw features a quadriga reflecting the original 1833 plans for the building, but not commissioned and executed until 2002. It was finally unveiled on May 3, 2002. I happened to be a broadcast journalist of the live coverage of this event on TVP1 – The Public Polish TV Channel One.
If you visit Warsaw, please consider night out at The Grand Theatre. The season runs from October until the end of June and features daily (except Mondays) performances of opera and ballet. The repertoire encompasses works by Polish composers, but also includes classics from Beethoven, Bizet, Mozart, Prokofiev, Rossini, Tchaikovsky, Verdi and Wagner, among others.
At night, the exterior of the building is floodlit, and its commanding location on The Theatre Square in the heart of Warsaw makes it a compulsory addition to any visitor’s photo collection.
After the performance you can “taste” The Theatre Square. You wouldn’t expect less: Warsaw’s theatre quarter is generously represented by high-end stores, flashy restaurants and architectural nuggets.
Bon appétit and see you there!
By Agata Szostkowska
Photos: Michał Stanisławski