Warsaw: The Grand Theatre – Sanctuary of art in the heart of the metropolis

warsaw Grand Theatre

The Grand Theatre’s stage of 1,150 sq m and the auditorium that can sit almost 1,800, is one of the largest worldwide. The sumptuous building with a Neo-Classicist façade is home to the national opera, ballet, and theatre right in the centre of the city, in the vicinity of the Presidential Palace and Warsaw’s Town Hall.

The Grand Theatre, an impressive building with a Neo-Classicist façade raised in the heart of Warsaw in the Square that bears its name: Teatralny (Theatre) Square, can boast of one of the largest stages worldwide; the 1,150 sq m stage is placed in the Moniuszko Auditorium. The Auditorium is also equipped with backstage and a revolving stage. Backstage there are also waiting rooms for artists, make-up and dressing rooms, as well as a small ballet room. The auditorium with front stalls, dress circle, upper circle and gallery cat accommodate almost 1,800.

The small stage (the Młynarski Auditorium) has 270 sq m and can sit around 250. With a small foyer nearby, it also features backstage with dressing-rooms and a cafeteria. The former Ballrooms constitute the only fragment of the Theatre next to the façade which comply with the genuine décor designed by Antonio Corazzi. Arranged to form the letter ‘T’, they can be readily sectioned off if needed. The surface of 540 sq m surrounded by ornamental galleries allows for receptions hosting up to 600 people.

One of the most impressive fragments of the Theatre is an extensive foyer of 860 sq m located on the first floor. When stepping on the marble floors, one may admire stucco walls, as well as sumptuous chandeliers, and crystal candelabra. All these provide a perfect venue for elegant receptions that accompany artistic events and other cultural meetings. Furthermore, from the 130- sq-m terrace located next to the foyer, the panorama of Teatralny Square can be admired.

Beginnings of theatre in Poland date back to mediaeval religious shows, student theatres, and itinerant artistic troupes performing in town squares, at gentry manors, and royal courts. In the 17th c. the first permanent theatre auditorium was founded at the Royal Castle by King Vladislaus IV.

Almost a hundred years later, in response to a growing social interest, Augustus II of Saxony initiated the construction of a building meant to house a theatre and later on an Opera, called Opernhouse, which operated for almost 50 years. After its compulsory demolition, plays were temporarily staged in an auditorium at the Radziwiłł Palace, to subsequently move into a building off Krasińskich Square raised hastily and at a low cost.

The dynamic development of theatre and opera contrasted with the modest premises made the city authorities decide to found the National Theatre, later called Grand. The decision was made to locate it in Pomarywilski (future Teatralny) Square, opposite the newly-erected Town Hall. The theatre was designed by the Italian architect Antonio Corazzi, author of many Warsaw’s edifices.

The National Theatre building designed by Corazzi composed of three elements: the main body (the theatre proper) accommodating the theatre auditorium, estimated to sit, according to of 15 October 1825, about 2,500 people, and also the stage and backstage including dressing-rooms for artists, and two wings, one of which has not been preserved, namely the Colonnaded Edifice designed by Christian Piotr Aigner, and another one, resembling it on the outside meant to serve public parties in so-called Ballrooms with the capacity of 8,000 people’, describes Piotr Biegański, an architect, author of one of the designs for the reconstruction of the Theatre after WW II in his publication The Grand Theatre.

Biegański emphasizes that the design implied modern technological devices and staff facilities. The plans comprised e.g. the guardhouse for infantry and horsemen accessible from the outside; stoves heating the stage; wells; iron stairs for firemen: changing rooms for extras; restaurants and toilets.

‘In the drawing of the layout of the stage and Ballroom level, comments were made that these would include: lamps serving at daytime to light corridors, in the summer used as ventilators after opening; columns (located by the main box) to carry the load of the auditorium’s illumination and serving as heated air inlets (air-conditioning prototype); water reservoirs supplying water to the stage staff, and additionally the backstage: a choir room, foyer, actors’ and actresses’ dressing rooms, a library, doctors’ surgeries, lounges for the artists, and others’, writes Biegański.

The construction of the Grand Theatre serving as home to the National Theatre existing from 1765, as well as to the opera and ballet, went on in 1825-33. The activity of the new institution was launched on 24 February 1833 with The Barber of Seville by Gioacchino Rossini. The performance was followed by a dance.

Over the years, the Theatre and its vicinity were altered and modernized by e.g. adding a column-supported balcony from the front. The square in front of the building soon turned into the venue for rallies and political manifestations. It was from the Theatre’s terrace that illustrious personalities were bid farewell, after which their funeral processions would march past Warsaw’s sanctuary of art, while inside it historic events’ anniversaries were ceremoniously celebrated and so were artists’ jubilees, occasional balls, or parties held on Name Days of the leaders of the 2nd Republic of Poland: Marshal Józef Piłsudski and President Ignacy Mościcki.

The Grand Theatre was where the premiere productions by Polish artists were staged, e.g. the full version of Halka (1858) and The Haunted Manor (1865) by Stanisław Moniuszko. And so were operas by Karol Szymanowski and Ignacy Jan Paderewski; it served as the venue for ballet performances by Piotr Zajlich or Roman Turczynowicz. It was here that the tenor Jan Kiepura had his first stage appearances, while the National Theatre welcomed such stars as Helena Modrzejewska, Kazimierz Junosza-Stępowski, or Juliusz Osterwa, the latter establishing ‘a progressive dramatic stage’ in the Ballrooms after WW I; as well as foreign artists.

In September 1939, during the air raids, the Grand Theatre was almost totally turned to rubble. Preserved were only the façade from the side of Teatralny Square, the eastern wing, and a fragment of inside outbuildings. During the war, residents carried out some protective works on what had survived of it, while in the underground organization a design for the Theatre’s reconstruction was conceived. During the Warsaw Uprising, the theatre served as the insurgents’ outpost, meanwhile the Nazis shot civilians on its premises, which is commemorated in the plaque placed on the building. In 1944, the preserved wing housing the theatre archive was burnt down.

After WW II, the decision to have the Grand Theatre rebuilt after Bohdan Pniewski’s design chosen through a competition was made promptly. All that is left from Corazzi’s genuine building is the Neo-Classicist façade and the so-called Ballrooms. The remaining part of the premises represents historicizing Socialist Realism. The building was fitted with state-of-the-art appliances, such as heating and air-conditioning devices imported from e.g. Austria and Switzerland. Two monuments by Jan Szczepkowski: one showing the playwright Wojciech Bogusławski and the other the composer Stanisław Moniuszko are placed in front of the Theatre. [pozwoliłam sobie dodać kim byli dla obcokrajowców]

The ceremonious reopening of the building with Moniuszko’s Haunted Manor took place on 19 November 1965. The Theatre premises which after the extension turned into one of the most grandiose in Europe, apart from the national opera and ballet complex, also house the Narodowy (National) Theatre and Theatre Museum boasting 200, 000 exhibits: works of art and theatre documentation.

Corazzi’s architectural concept provided for a sculpture of Apollo, god of arts, driving a four-wheel chariot to crown the Grand Theatre’s façade. The authorities of the Russian partition did not, however, agree to have this monumental piece mounted. The wide pedestal below the main façade gable remained empty until 2002 when Poland’s President Aleksander Kwaśniewski unveiled the sculpture designed by two Warsaw’s Academy of Fine Arts professors: Adam Myjak and Antoni Janusz Pastwa.

The Grand Theatre stagings have included works by Polish composers, e.g. Karol Kurpiński, Karol Szymanowski, and Krzysztof Penderecki, as well as foreign ones: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Ludwig van Beethoven, Giuseppe Verdi, etc. Some renowned Polish choreographers, for example Leon Wójcikowski and Stanisław Miszczyk, as well as foreign ones (including Alicia Alonso and Maurice Béjart) have worked with the Warsaw ballet; the Theatre can also boast of stagings by illustrious opera and ballet directors: Harry Kupfer, Robert Wilson, Krzysztof Warlikowski, and Mariusz Treliński

The Grand Theatre has witnessed performances of many outstanding artists: Bernard Ładysz, Ewa Podleś, Małgorzata Walewska, Placido Domingo, and José Cura, as well as e.g. the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. Other cooperation forms involve the Metropolitan Opera among others. The Warsaw company’s artists have on numerous occasions also visited international theatres.

As for the National Theatre, it has staged plays by Tadeusz Różewicz, Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz, Stanisław Wyspiański, Aristophanes, William Shakespeare, and James Joyce, directed by, to name at least, Kazimierz Dejmek, Adam Hanuszkiewicz, and Kazimierz Kutz. Moreover, it has served as the venue for guest performances, such as that of the Comédie-Française.

The Grand Theatre has also witnessed events celebrating outstanding individuals from the world of culture and politics, as well as served as the venue for celebrations of national holidays and strictly commercial events. It was here that Krzysztof Penderecki celebrated his 75th Birthday and the 2007 premiere of Andrzej Wajda’s film Katyń was held. In 2011, the Grand Theatre production of King Roger by Karol Szymanowski launched the Polish EU Presidency. Moreover, the International Stanisław Moniuszko Vocal Competition takes place here.

The Grand Theatre’s premises continue to undergo alterations. The currently planned works include the continued conservation and renovation of its historic façade as well as the renovation of the main stage floor. (PAP)


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