50th anniversary of the reconstruction of the Teatr Wielki in Warsaw

Polish National Opera

The Beginnings
Opera arrived to Poland only thirty years after it had been born in Florence. In 1628 Władysław IV Vasa invited the first Italian opera troupe to Poland. Since then Poland’s principal opera and ballet scene has been the Teatr Wielki. Erected between 1825 and 1833 based on a design by Antonio Corazzi of Livorno.
The theatre later underwent a few reconstructions. During the 1939 siege of Warsaw it was bombed and completely destroyed, except for its classicist facade.
"The Germans were tearing the theatre bazaar down from August until the end of Spetember in retaliation for the outbreak of the Warsaw uprising". (Sylwia Chutnik,"The grandest of them all", [w:] "Teatr Wielki 50/50", Warsaw 2015, p. 164)
"They used dynamite to blow up the Wojciech Bogusławski's monument in front of the Wielki, as well as the statues of Duke Poniatowski and Adam Mickiewicz". (Sylwia Chutnik,"The grandest of them all", [w:] "Teatr Wielki 50/50", Warsaw 2015, p. 164)
"Despite the horrific damage, the Wielki's frontage stilll towered over the ruins of Teatralny Square, and the building's central structure survived the trial by fire" (Sylwia Chutnik,"The grandest of them all", [w:] "Teatr Wielki 50/50", Warsaw 2015, p. 164)
"The archive of the Govermental Theatres did not survive. It had contained thousands of manuscripts of dramatic plays, music scores, theatre bills and programmes, personal records of artists and staff, their diaries and memorabilia" (Sylwia Chutnik,"The grandest of them all", [w:] "Teatr Wielki 50/50", Warsaw 2015, p. 166)
"The Teatr Wielki burned down completely, except for its classicist frontage. On 5 September also the stage and auditorium of the theatre on Bielańska street turned into ashes. At the same time, the Summer Theatre in the Saxon Garden was being demolished. On 19 September the National Theatre burst in flames, along with the Wielki and Redutowe Rooms. At the end of the monstrous month no building was left standing on the square". (Sylwia Chutnik,"The grandest of them all", [w:] "Teatr Wielki 50/50", Warsaw 2015, p. 164)
Arnold Szyfman
Stage and theatre director. In 1909 he brought about the building of the Polski Theatre in Warsaw, which he later led for many years. In 1934-1936 he managed five Warsaw theatres altogether, in 1937 he co-founded the Polish Representative Ballet, and led the company throughout its first season. On 1 March 1950 he became the director of the Teatr Wielki Opera and Ballet Under Construction. In 1959 he was appointed the culture minister’s representative for the repertoire, recruitment, organisation and financial matters of the new Teatr Wielki Opera and Ballet in Warsaw. It was he who ensured the best possible equipment for the constructed theatre. Because of his perseverance he was nicknamed Arnold the Mad and Arnold the Persistent.
Bohdan Pniewski
An excellent architect, he designed monumental public buildings, villas, exhibition pavilions, and interiors. In Warsaw he designed: villas on Frascati, Konopnickiej, Klonowa, and Na Scarpie streets, where the Museum of the Earth of the Polish Academy of Sciences is now located. He turned the Brühl Palace into the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (1932), designed the Magistrates’ Court (1935-1939), the National Bank of Poland (1947-1955), the Ministry of Communications (1948-1950), expanded the Sejm complex (1949-1952) and Dom Chłopa (1958-1961). In the vicinity of Piłsudskiego Square, he reconstructed Hotel Europejski and designed a group of buildings for the Ministry of Defence (1949-1950). He erected the Ballet School on Moliera street (1952). He won nineteen prestigious architectural competitions. One of them concerned the reconstruction of the Teatr Wielki in Warsaw (1950-1965). He died a few months before the theatre reopened.
The Winning Design
Bohdan Pniewski won the 1950 competition for the best reconstruction design of the Teatr Wielki after it had been destroyed in World War II. The winning design featured an auditorium with a semicircular seating plan and one balcony, and five columned porticos. An analogous concept was used for the facade as seen from Piłsudski Square.
The reconstructors looked for a compromise between the amphitheatre seating plan ensuring good visibility and the multilevel arrangement ensuring good acoustics, to guarantee the best possible conditions for the maximum number of people.
The Reconstruction
“One of the biggest, most important, and most difficult building construction investments (…), apart from building new cities [or] factory complexes, (…) will be the Teatr Wielki in Warsaw. One of the biggest because the lot – whose boundaries are delimited by Teatralny Square, Focha (now: Moliera) street, Trębacka street, and Wierzbowa street – measures 11 594 m2 (including the National Theatre). In practice, the construction works will go even farther, including Trębacka street and three lots with even numbers on Focha street (…). Finally, because of the Teatr Wielki’s construction, some decisions will have to be made as regards the future of Zwycięstwa (now: Piłsudskiego) Square and Teatralny Square” (Arnold Szyfman, “Pamiętniki Teatralne”, issue no. 2/3, 1952, State Institute of Art, Warsaw).
From the press: "In line with his architectural concept – which did not envision adapting any of the surviving elements of the old structure, apart from the front facade looking out on Teatralny Square – the designer had the whole site cleared out. This created excellent conditions to plan out the space and concieve ideas fitting the goals postulated by the investor".
"To biuld an opera today, in the mid-20th century, is a complicated task, almost without precedence, requiring us to discover almost all of the guiding principles anew", said Bohdan Pniewski in an interview in 1956.
"Paradoxically, if you carefully look around, you'll see that the last opera house was built in Europe in 1870 in Paris; next up was the reconstruction of the Viennese opera", he continued.
"There are 650 seats in the stalls and 480 in the corbeille, the slightly elevated area of the parterre. The upper circle includes the state box, totalling 337 seats. In the balcony can seat 327 people.The boxes on the last storey - the galery - are built into the wall of the auditorium. Some have seats (150), while others accomodate electric and ventilation equipment". (Beata Chomątowska, "Glamour in a time of gloom", [in:] "Teatr Wielki 50/50", Warsaw 2015, p. 184)
Decorative concept is governed by the classicist exterior of the building designed by Corazzi.
"The real gem is the south facade turned towards Trębacka street. Here Pniewski was forced to design a de facto second front (...) . Bringing together different elements of classicist architecture and adjusting them for Corazzi's style, Pniewski created one of the most monumental facades of post-war Warsaw". (Jarosław Trybuś, "The sum of architecture. The last work of Bohdan Pniewski", [in:] "Teatr wielki 50/50", Warsaw 2015, p. 198)
"The six protruding, four-column porticos give the long wall a rhythm that fully eradicates the risk of it becoming wearisomely monotonous" (Ibidem)
The Ceiling
In the year the man first landed on the Moon, works started on the moon ceiling of the auditorium. To achieve the characteristic effect, a few thousand of ceramic bowls, their rims delicately gilded, were used.
"The theatre will be fitted with 87 different electric networks. The stage machinery, heating, air-conditioning and ventilation systems will be installed by foreign conractors". (Beata Chomątowska, "Glamour in a time of gloom", [in:] "Teatr Wielki 50/50", Warsaw 2015, p. 182)
Decorative Opulence
“Some things were impossible to put on paper – for instance the decorative elements in the vestibule and stairway. They were bouquets of flowers and leafs made of colourful, transparent glass containing lamps inside. How do you draw transparent, colourful, overlapping forms? The technical drawing didn’t do justice to the concept; you had to imagine it. (…) And despite being sure of the end-result, I, too, was anxious when the first element was set up” (Tadeusz Gronowski, “Ruch Muzyczny”, issue no. 22, 15-30 November 1965).
The Universe at Your Feet
The patterned floor of the Main Foyer designed by Bohdan Pniewski conceals a secret: it delimits the Theatre’s pre-war auditorium. The floor was made of carefully selected, dyed ash wood. Here, too, you will notice cosmic motifs on both sides of the central flower pattern. Tadeusz Gronowski and Bohdan Pniewski had worked together on the interior design of the Theatre for more than four years. Most of Gronowski’s designs can now be seen in the Main Foyer.
The Grand Lobby
The three-storey gallery leading to the auditorium creates a monumental lobby together with the Main Foyer. Its walls were supposed to be decorated with paintings, but Pniewski changed his mind when Tadeusz Gronowski suggested tapestries. Four tapestries measuring 9.5 x 2 m had been woven for almost two years. Gronowski was one of the best Polish graphic artists, author of innovative advertising posters and the well-known logo of the LOT Polish Airlines.
Grand Opening
On 19 November 1965, after 14 years of work, the reconstructed Teatr Wielki officially opened. It was Friday, 19 November 1965. The day marked two anniversaries: of the first theatre show staged in Polish in Warsaw (1765) and of laying the cornerstone of the original building designed by Antonio Corazzi (1825). The weather was wintry. The first performance was the gala premiere of Moniuszko’s "The Haunted Manor" on Saturday, 20 November at 7 p.m. Cars pulling up in front of the illuminated Theatre caused a huge traffic jam (then a rarity) in the otherwise dim streets.
In total, the opening was attended by over 400 people from 25 different countries, 70 foreign reporters and music critics, and prominent Polish artists. It seemed that after such a grand opening, the Teatr Wielki has an even grander future before it.
Opened in 1965, the Teatr Wielki was one of the most innovative opera houses in the world, offering huge production possibilities, despite the limitations of the Communist era. The stage machinery was made to measure by carefully selected manufacturers from across Europe.
Thirty six cargo and passenger lifts, including six reserved for the audience and four to transport the scenery (two of these are twenty-seven meter-long), six main stairways for the audience, three main stairways and more than a dozen smaller staircases for the staff – these all make it possible to get around the 500 000 cubic meters of the Teatr Wielki.
"Both Antonio Corazzi and Bohdan Pniewski shaped the architectural face of Warsaw, one designing institutional buildings and carrying out urban development projects. Both came up with their designs in complicated economic and political conditions. Both had to accept modifications demanded by the powers that be. Yet each strived for perfection: a monumental structure with an auditorium able to seat two thousand people and the most modern stage in the world.
"Finally, the cutrain goes up! The scenery's splendour awes just like a century ago (...). And in the midst of it all: brilliant people whose legs end in pointe shoes, whose voices penetrate the golden frame of the proscenium arch. Each note reaches as far as the last seat on one of the three balconies. Nobody dares to close their eyes - even for a moment: too much is going on to allow yourself a moment of introspection". (Sylwia Chutnik, '"The grandest of them all", [in:] "Teatr Wielki 50/50", Warsaw 2015, p. 166)
“I walked – first around the ruins, then around the Teatr Wielki under reconstruction. Now I’m walking around a grand theatre (…). I feel like a smaller version of Louis XIV in the New Versailles. What’s more, I known all that is hidden from the audience’s eye. I try to forget about it, because the crowd see the stage only (…). But I can’t forget what I saw and what now has to function well for the opera to be born. And it is born at the backstage, in the rehearsal rooms of the orchestra, chorus, and ballet. It is born in the scenic painting shops and other workshops. It emerges from storage rooms and huge side docks, and appears on the stage thanks to a system of levers, lifts, and colossal machinery that could conceal an elephant, dragon, or a life-size pyramid” (Zygmunt Mycielski, “Ruch Muzyczny”, issue no. 1, 1-15 January 1965).
Credits: Story

sources: Archive of the Teatr Wielki - Polish National Opera, Narodowe Archiwum Cyfrowe

"Być Wielkim" and "Plan Corazziego" (fragments of the virtual tour available on www.teatrwielki.pl): Daria Rzepiela, Tomasz Wełna (co-operation) for the Teatr Wielki - Polish National Opera

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions (listed below) who have supplied the content.
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