Bayreuth, Germany, is a city famous around the world for its summer Wagner Festival, which was founded in 1876 by Richard Wagner himself. But long before that, Bayreuth had another operatic visionary.
Wilhelmine, Margravine of Brandenburg-Bayreuth, was the eldest daughter of King Frederick William I of Prussia and sister of Frederick the Great. An ambitious polymath who composed music, wrote verse and corresponded with Voltaire, she built the intimate yet elaborate Margravial Opera House in Bayreuth, one of the most striking surviving examples of Baroque theatre architecture in Europe.
In 2018, the nearly 300-year-old opera house, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2012, reopened to the public after a six-year, €29.6 million renovation that returned its dazzling ornamental details, murals and trompe l’oeil effects to something approaching their original splendour.
In addition to the careful restoration and conservation of the theatre’s ornately painted, gilded surfaces – which required some 70,000 hours of work and brought more light and brightness back into the interior – the proscenium, which had shrunk during the previous reconstruction, was enlarged to its original dimensions.
In the roughly 500-seat auditorium, the chairs have been replaced, which can be adjusted to suit the requirements of the show, and the lighting has been sensibly supplemented with LED bulbs that resemble the warm glow of candles. Backstage, the stage equipment has been upgraded, the hall is now temperature controlled and the ceiling of the building has been freshly insulated.
“Bayreuth is today the cultural capital of Bavaria,” said Markus Söder, Prime Minister of Bavaria, before the theatre’s opening ceremony, addressing the invited audience, which included Katharina Wagner, artistic director of the Wagner Festival and great-granddaughter of Richard Wagner, and Christian Thielemann, music director of the festival since 2015. Also in the audience was Georg Friedrich, Prince of Prussia, great-grandson of Wilhelm II, the last German Emperor.
The Opera Margravial, built in 1748 to plans by Joseph Saint-Pierre – the interior was designed by Giuseppe Galli Bibiena, the leading theatre architect of his time, and his son Carlo – was inaugurated in September that year as part of the wedding celebrations of Wilhelmina’s only child, Elisabeth Friederike Sophie, to Carl Eugen, Duke of Württemberg. The building has survived in good condition, mainly because it was little used after Wilhelmina’s death in 1758.After Wagner’s plans for a festival in Munich devoted to his works fell through, he became enthusiastic about the Opera Margravial, but it was too small for the epic works he had envisioned. (He eventually built a new theatre on a hill about a kilometre to the north.)