Monday, January 13, 2014

Restorations of the Imperial Theatre - Fontainebleau

The Imperial Theatre © FMR
The Imperial Theatre © FMR
The Imperial Theatre © Sophie Lloyd
The Imperial Theatre © Sophie Lloyd
Restorations of the Theatre armchairs © M-L. Mazureck


The Imperial Theatre at Château de Fontainebleau, one of the premier examples of Second Empire theatres, has long awaited restoration. His Highness Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, a great lover and patron of the arts, has generously sponsored the renovation of the theatre and its opening to the public. His Highness has supported a number of artistic projects, including the Louvre Abu Dhabi, and has pledged a renewable annual budget of five million euros to restore the Imperial Theatre at Fontainebleau. In recognition of this donation the French Minister of Culture and Communication, Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres, renamed the theatre on April 27th, 2007 in the presence of His Highness Sheikh Sultan bin Tahnoon Al Nahyan after the patron of the arts who saved it from falling into ruin.


At the behest of Napoleon III, the theatre was designed by the architect Hector Lefuel and built between 1853 and 1856 in order to replace the old Comédie theatre, built in the 18th century in the Belle Cheminée wing and no longer suitable. The original space was too small, had no modern conveniences and was inadequate for hosting the numerous guests invited by the imperial couple during their stays when in residence at Fontainebleau. The natural choice for the new theatre was an unfinished part of the château, the western half of the « aile neuve des Princes », (new Princes’ Wing) today known as the Louis XV wing that borders on the Cour du Cheval Blanc (White Horse Courtyard), the wing that replaced the Ulysses gallery of François 1st in the 18th century. Restricted by the layout of the facades and the attic area Lefuel managed nevertheless brilliantly and with much ingenuity to build a modern space with seating for 400 including all the associated facilities : foyer, passageways, staircases, rooms, stage and other backstage areas assigned to actors, musicians and stagehands. Making optimum use of the building’s layout, Napoleon III’s official architect built an elongated space in the form of an ellipse. It consists of four distinct levels, which in a way correspond to the social hierarchy imposed at the time : the parterre (stalls, lower flat area), the first dress circle including the imperial box, the upper second dress circle and finally boxes with protective bars on the last level. This theatre is directly inspired by Marie Antoinette’s small theatre at Versailles, no doubt to satisfy Empress Eugénie who greatly admired her. This charming court theatre was inaugurated in May 1857 during the visit of the Grand Duke Constantine of Russia, who was Tsar Alexander II’s brother. The combination of silk upholsteries, floral carpets and hand-painted or gilded gesso ornaments provide a soft and shimmering atmosphere. The room has remained in remarkable condition as it was not often used. From the time of its construction during the reign of Napoleon III, only about fifteen performances were held. Furthermore the layout of the stage has remained unchanged and has not suffered from any modernisation attempts. Much of the surviving equipment could prove to be even older and possibly salvaged from the old Comédie theatre that was destroyed by fire in 1856 but whose decors and stage scenery had already been taken down. Long closed to the public and having fallen into disuse, isolated from the rest of the château, the Imperial theatre will at last, thanks to this significant restoration campaign and the patronage of Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, be rescued from oblivion.

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