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The Hermitage Theatre
Theatrical performances at the court of the Russian emperors became traditional since the 18th century and accompanied many festive occasions. In the south-western part of the Winter Palace an "Opera House" was built specially to give the performances for the court. But soon the Empress focused her interests on the assemblies for the selected number of the retinue - "small hermitages" that were usually accompanied by plays and theatrical performances. They were held in a small theatre hall set up in the neighbouring building of the Great Hermitage in 1776. But those who wished to be present at the performances outnumbered the seats in the small overcrowded hall. Thus the necessity to built up a Big Court Theatre became obvious. On September 23, 1783 Catherine II wrote an edict to construct a Stone Theatre at the corner of the Winter canal (Zimnaya Kanavka) and the Neva embankment, where the Winter Palace of Peter I used to be located, "under the guidance of the architect Quarenghi" "so that by August 1784 the Theatre were completed". This order to construct a new court theatre utterly pleased Quarenghi. After he got acquainted with the palaces of the outstanding architect of the Renaissance Andrea Palladio and with the ancient theatres of Rome and Pompei his idea was to built a theatre in the Antique style. Now it could be implemented. At the end of August 1784 the hall and the front part of the stage were completed. When Catherine II came to see how the work was going on she was in general pleased with the theatre except for the benches as it was very uncomfortable for her to sit in crinoline without back support. Besides the stage seemed too small for her. Alterations were in progress till the end of 1785 as well as decoration of the hall. Apart from the amphitheatre a small pit was arranged in front of the stage where the arm-chairs for the Empress and her retinue were put. On both sides of the stage there were two small boxes one of which was offered for Quarenghi for life as a sign of gratitude.

The building of the Hermitage Theatre the construction of which was completed in 1789 is one of the best works of Giacomo Quarenghi. The facade looking at the Neva is notable for refined simplicity and clearness of the architectural compositions. It was divided into two tiers: a massive rusicated socle and a well-proportioned colonnade above it flanked by the projectures with decorative sculptures in the niches. The dynamics and harmony of the architectural composition of the Hermitage Theatre produces the most impression from the corner where the Neva river bends.
The architect himself wrote about his creation: "I strived to give the theatre an antique appearance combining it at the same time with modern requirements... It is spacious enough to give there the most magnificent performances, and it still ranks among the most famous theatres..., the semi-circle form of the amphitheatre was chosen for two reasons. In the first place, it is the most convinient form from the spectator's point of view. In the second place, every spectator can see from his seat all the others and this is a very nice sight when the house is full".
The walls of the hall are covered with artificial marble and decorated with columns the capitals of which have in their ornamentation stage masks like those that the architect found at the excavations of Pompei. In the shallow niches there are nine sculptures of muses and Apollo made of plaster, over them the medallions representing outstanding playwrights. The stage that is almost twice as big as the hall is separated from it by a ballustrade behind which there are some rows of seats and two side boxes. In Catherine's time the hall could house 250 spectators (remember the crinolines). But it was usually half-full except for the days of "Big Hermitages" when fancy-dress parties were organized in the palace with different games and dances and, of course, performances. It was also the place for the so called theatre dinners for the selected. Then a big oval table was laid down in the amphitheatre. During these dinners one or sometimes two plays were performed on the stage.
The repertoire of almost all European theatres was performed on the stage of the Hermitage Theatre. For some plays and musical performances the Empress wrote libretti herself: operas "Phevei" and "The Novgorodian bogatyr (hero) Boeslavich" compiled "from the Russian fairy-tale and songs and other compositions", plays "The Beginning of the Rule of Oleg" and "The Brave and Bold Hero Archideich", a drama "Shaman from Siberia", historical imitation of Shakespeare "The Life of Riurik". The opera "The Trouble-Bogatyr Kosometovich" enjoyed the most success. Catherine was particularly pleased with the news that Grand Dukes sang this opera from memory.
Trying to enable the development of the stage art in Russia Catherine invited to the Russian court the most famous composers, musicians, actors, stage mechanics and decorators of Europe. With the foundation of the Hermitage Theatre, that developed from "Small Hermitage assemblies" into the professional theatre, the idea of creating Russian stage was put into life.


Hermitage Theatre
Architect Giacomo Quarenghi
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The hall of the Hermitage Theatre
Larger view


The sketch of the curtain for the Hermitage Theatre
Gabriel Francois Doienne
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The cross-section of the hall
Drawing by Giacomo Quarenghi
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The Hermitage
 
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Related Links:
The official homepage of the State Hermitage Museum: www.hermitagemuseum.org

Complete playbill of all St. Petersburg,Russia theatres, shows, concerts, etcComplete playbill of all St. Petersburg,Russia theatres, shows, concerts, etc. !
World-known music festival "The Stars of the White Nights". Artistic director - Valery Gergiev (Mariinky (Kirov) Opera and Ballet)World-known music festival "The Stars of the White Nights".
Artistic director - Valery Gergiev (Mariinky (Kirov) Opera and Ballet)

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