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Entries / Imperial Theatres

Imperial Theatres

Categories / Art/Music, Theatre/Theaters, Concert Organizations

IMPERIAL THEATRES (in the 18th century court theatres, in the 19th century also called public theatres), originally intended to entertain the Imperial family, and to entertain and educate the public. Within two centuries the institute of Imperial Theatres gradually developed from the humble Italian Company (troupes of Italian singers, comedians, musicians), established for the pleasure of Empress Anna Ioannovna, into one of the most complex and expensive organizations of the court administration, including troupes, orchestras, theatres, lodging and other buildings, academic institutions, workshops, offices, shops, extensive collections of published plays and print music, and administrative equipment. The status of the Imperial Theatres depended on the spirits and tastes of the reigning monarch, affecting all aspects from the style of the staging, to the casting of favourite actors, to the dramatic and musical repertoire. The entire cast was considered court servants, included on the approved imperial staff roll, received wages from the Court Household through the Theatre Directorate (from 1842 the Imperial Theatres were operated by the Imperial Court Ministry), held ranks, and was titled Actor of the Imperial Theatre (in the 18th century His Imperial Majesty's Court Actor), which ensured certain privileges. The Imperial Theatres' budget came from public grants allocated by special decrees, and (starting in 1783) from performance-taxes. The Directorate of the Imperial Theatres arranged performances and provided orchestras for balls and highly formal court events. Court performances were free. One would be summoned by a Court Household notice, and it was both an honour and an obligation to attend. On holidays, free performances were organised for the Commons. By Catherine II's decree from 12 December 1783, court troupes were required to perform a certain number of plays every month in various public theatres (Stone and Wooden Theatres) for city-dwellers with tickets. Over time, this form of performance became a part of the city's fabric. G. B. Locatelli's Italian Opera and Ballet Company, which arrived in St. Petersburg in 1757, was licensed to perform for the city public provided they also staged plays for the court for a fixed annual fee. Until 1860, when the Directorate of the Imperial Theatres took over the administration of the Mariinsky Theatre, the Alexandrinsky Theatre, and the Bolshoy Theatre, and the Mikhailovsky Theatre, each theatre company developed regardless of the stage they performed on. In the 18th century, the main stages were court stages, complemented by the Opera House at the Neva Perspective (near present-day 12-17 Мalaya Konyushennaya Street, 1742-49), the Opera House by the Summer Garden (1750, architect F. Rastrelli; plays ran until 1763), The Bolshoy (Stone) Theatre (Karuselnaya, today 3 Theatre Square; architect F. V. von-Bawr, М. А. Dedenev, opened in 1783), the Wooden Theatre (until 1783 Theatre on Tsarina's Meadow; torn down in 1796), and the Hermitage Theatre (1783; architect G.Quarenghi). By 1809, the staff of the Theatre Directorate encompassed 7 troupes (one ballet, two Russian, three French and one German) and about 10 theatres, including the stages at country residences. It was not until the second half of the 19th century that Mariinsky Theatre became synonymous with the Imperial Russian Opera and Ballet, and that the Alexandrinsky Theatre was designated the House of Imperial Russian Drama. These names still epitomize the highest level of Russian theatre art. Contributions by European artists helped refine performances: the Bolshoy Theatre was completely dominated by the Italian Opera Troupe, the Mikhailovsky Theatre hosted performances by the French Music and Drama Troupe. The multi-national and -cultural system of the Imperial Theatres stemmped from the institution's very origin. The Italian Comedians Company was the first court troupe of its time in Saint Petersburg (1732), until in 1735 Saint Petersburg welcomed the Italian Opera-Seria with a new Commedia dell'Arte. In 1735-90 and in 1843-85, the court Italian Opera Troupe was one of the most significant and privileged branches of the Imperial Theatres. The Dancing School founded in 1738 initiated what would later become the Petersburg Imperial Theatre Academy, and in 1741 the Imperial Ballet. In 1743, the French Court Theatre acquired the status of an Imperial company, and was augmented by the French Opera in 1764 (both functioned until 1812, later operating in Saint Petersburg on revised conditions upon the opening of the Mikhailovsky Theatre in 1833 until 1917). In 1759, by an edict of Empress Elizaveta Petrovna, the Russian Theatre of Tragedy and Comedy Performance was reorganised into the Russian Court Imperial Troupe, which from the late 1770s staged opera. In 1803 a split occurred, creating the Imperial Russian Opera Troupe, which performed until 1917. The tradition of Russian drama, opera, and ballet theatres that began with the Imperial Theatres still thrives in Saint Petersburg. The city's multi-lingual environment, along with the diversity of European schools of theatre represented by the Imperial Theatres, set a high standard for the development of Russian theatre art from the very beginning. Actors from foreign troupes, as well court orchestra musicians, were invited from Europe thanks to a principle established by Empress Anna Ioannovna, which said that one had to choose the best one could possibly find. These foreign musicians and performers served as the tutors and colleagues of the local primitives. In the late 18th century, Russian actors could perform almost the entire repertoire of the French Troupe; and, having been established for almost hundred years, the Italian Opera was able to stage all the best Russian operas, from M. I. Glinka's A Life for the Tsar and Ruslan and Lyudmila to Peter Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin. In 1803-82, the Imperial Theatres enjoyed a monopoly on printing playbills, staging theatrical performances and concerts, opening new theatres, circuses. Other organizations could engage in such activity on with special permission, which made it possible to control the theatre and cultural life of the two main cities, and in part that of the province. Despite these drawbacks, it did not hinder the resolute development of Russian arts in other spheres parallel to theatre. The system of the Imperial Theatres cultivated its own traditions with troupes composed of a large number of talented Russian and foreign actors, directors, ballet-masters, and theatre directors; the Imperial Theatres were the first to stage works now considered Russian classics. Russian dramatic art, classical Russian opera, M. I. Petipa's and М. М. Fokine's ballets, V. E. Meyerkhold's Imperial plays, all appeared thanks to the theatre culture conceived by the Imperial theatres. The key role in the process belonged to the Directorate of the Imperial Theatres (in 1766-1842 called the Directorate of Performances and Music, the Theatre Directorate), which by the mid-19th century was a full-scale department with a large staff and political ties that influenced the capital's public life. The Statute on the Administration of the Imperial Theatres (1827), the Statute on the Actors of the Imperial Theatres (1839), and a number of other statutes consisted of the basic documents that regulated the Directorate's activities. Through its history, the Directorate of Imperial Theatres (1766-1917) was directed by such figures as I. P. Elagin (1766-79), N. B. Yusupov (1791-99), А. L. Naryshkin (1799-1819), I. А. Vsevolozhsky (1881-99), S. М. Volkonsky (1899-1901), and V. А. Telyakovsky (1901-17). Following the February Revolution, the Imperial Theatres were reorganised into state-run theatre companies in March 1917.

References: Теляковский В. А. Воспоминания, 1898-1917. Пб., 1924; Мордисон Г. З. История театрального дела в России: основание и развитие гос. театра в России (XVI-XVIII вв.). СПб., 1994; Петровская И. Ф., Сомина В. В. Театральный Петербург: Нач. XVIII в.- окт. 1917 г.: Обозрение-путеводитель. СПб., 1994.

A. L. Porfiryeva, Y. N. Kruzhnov.

Anna Ioannovna, Empress
Bauer Fedor Villimovich
Catherine II, Empress
Dedenev Mikhail Alexeevich
Elagin Ivan Perfilievich
Elizaveta Petrovna, Empress
Fokin Mikhail Mikhailovich
Glinka Mikhail Ivanovich
Locatelli Giovanni Battista
Meyerhold Vsevolod Emilievich
Naryshkin Alexander Lvovich
Petipa Marius Ivanovich
Quarenghi Giacomo
Rastrelli Francesco de
Tchaikovsky Peter Ilyich
Telyakovsky Vladimir Arkadievich
Volkonsky Sergey Mikhailovich, Duke
Vsevolozhsky Ivan Alexandrovich
Yusupov Nikolay Borisovich, Duke

Malaya Konyushennaya St./Saint Petersburg, city, house 12-17
Teatralnaya Square/Saint Petersburg, city, house 3

Мордисон Г. З. История театрального дела в России: основание и развитие гос. театра в России (XVI -XVIII вв.). СПб., 1994
Петровская И. Ф., Сомина В. В. Театральный Петербург: Нач. XVIII в. - окт. 1917 г.: Обозрение-путеводитель. СПб., 1994
Теляковский В. А. Воспоминания, 1898-1917. Пб., 1924

The subject Index
Imperial Theatres Board
Ministry of the Imperial Court
Alexandrinsky Theatre
Mariinsky Theatre
Hermitage Theatre


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