THE FIRST THEATRE IN ROMANIA (1817)
Those who want to know how the Vienna Burgtheater looks like, can see it for themselves when visiting the Old “Mihai Eminescu” Theatre, whose architecture imitates the old Vienna building at a smaller scale. As the Viennese theatre underwent many changes over the time, today the “original” can be seen only at Oraviţa;
The theatre hall, the stage and the building restore authentically the art of the Viennese Baroque;
Looking at the interior decorations, it is obvious that the golden yellow colour dominates.
When the tourist arrives in the multicultural town of Oravita, he cannot miss the opportunity to see a unique jewel of the Viennese Baroque or of the late Baroque (as it is called by specialists) from Mountainous Banat: The Old “Mihai Eminescu” Theatre. Inaugurated in 1817, it is the first theatre built in Romanian and at the same time a symbol of the vocation and love for art and culture of the inhabitants of these Banat regions.
Those who want to know what the Burgtheater from Vienna looks like can do it just by visiting the “Mihai Eminescu” Old Theatre in Oraviţa, whose building and architecture imitate on a smaller scale the old Vienna building. As the Viennese theatre has undergone many changes in time since 1890, the “original” one carrying the charm of the past can be seen in the Mountainous Banat, at Oraviţa, on Mihai Eminescu Street, nr. 18.
The building of the theatre fills the visitors with astonishment by its architectural and decorative style, beauty and richness, and remains a testimony over time of the late Baroque art since it has not changed since the theatre was built and since it was officially inaugurated in the autumn of 1817, in the presence of the imperial family of Vienna, Francis I, Emperor of Austria and the Empress Carolina-Augusta.
About the history of the Old Mihai Eminescu Theatre in Oraviţa, however, no one can speak better than Mr. Ionel Bota, the current director of the theatre and the guide of his guests:
“We are the Old Mihai Eminescu Theatre, the name of “old theatre “meaning a reference to the priority, being the oldest theatre in Romania and the first edifice built for such purpose, to host theatre and music performances. << Mihai Eminescu >> to mark the presence of the great Romanian poet at Oraviţa, at the end of August 1868, in Mihail Pascaly’s theatre ensemble. The young poet was part of that group having a double function: Pascaly’s second secretary for his beautiful writing and the soul of the ensemble. This building was not, of course, born due to an infatuation of the people of the place, as the place – the city of Oraviţa – was not chosen either accidentally for the rise of Thalia’s temple.
In a prosperous and extremely important economic Oraviţa after the conquest of the Banat by the imperial troops (1716-1718), the tradition of the theatre performances in Oraviţa is older than the date of the inauguration of this unique building. At the end of the eighteenth century there were intense presence of professional theatre troupes performing musical and theatre performances on improvised stages, one of these were the ensemble from Vienna, led by Antonius Eintrag, who came in 1763 to perform on an improvised stage at the Oraviţa post office’s inn. The tradition of the dramatic art of the mining colonists harmonizes with the vocation and love of the authentic Banat peasant for culture and all that is beautiful, for the theatre, even if sometimes he received it in quite rudimentary forms.
In 1783, when Peter Eirich set up a stage in one of the salons of his hotel, Coroana, the first nucleus of amateurs from Oravita (the name given to the unprofessional) was formed in the theatre. The passion for theatre and musical shows, shared not only by the intellectual elite, but also by other social categories, was cultivated even more with the establishment of the Dilettante’s Club in 1806.
The idea of building a theatre was born from the first group of colonists sent from Vienna, especially in women’s mentality. This can be explained by taking into consideration the “principles” of the Austrian performance and function. Vienna sent a specialist, in our case, in mining and metallurgy, who no longer returned to the capital or the city his origin, and he was about to establish his family’s “dynasty.” This is how the idea of having a theatre built was born and remained alive after 1770 and was passed from one generation to another by the colonists. There was even a Vienna approval for a theatre edifice issued in 1775, but the idea is abandoned and has been resumed with intensity since 1815.
From the autumn of 1815, Vienna was preparing the celebrations dedicated to the centennial of the liberation of the Banat province from the Ottoman administration. At that time, the adviser to the Monetary-Mining Treasury, with its headquarters in Oraviţa, was Prokop Lhotka von Zmislow, one of the personal friends of Emperor Francis I of Austria. Grace to his direct relationship with the Imperial House, the Oravița inhabitants re-launch through written petitions the idea of erecting a theatre that wins the emperor’s adhesion. At the same time, at the initiative of the Union of Dilettantes, a public fundraising is started to collect the money for the construction of the theatre. The first sums are collected at the ball organised in December 1815, and then the highest amount is collected on March 24th 1816, from private individuals from all social categories and from all the living ethnicities from Oraviţa. Once they raised the money, they had to choose the construction place – the Thalia’s mine flotation. Coincidence or predestined name!
The building is ready since the fall of 1816. Moreover, it is set to be inaugurated on July 1st 1817. But at the time, like in our time, there was an inborn fault of character of man still functioning, depending on what circumstances help it to be developed or not: when one tries to erect something, seven are trying to take it down. Denunciation against Prokop Lhotka von Zmislow and the brothers Ion and Dimitrie Constantini, all three the public fundraiser list holders, and also against the architect of the building, Ion Niuni, all of them of Aromanian origin, appear on the Emperor’s table in Vienna.
As the Emperor wanted to attend the inauguration, and he did not want to make any mistake, he sent first a counsellor at the head of an inquiry commission, which investigated for almost two months. Since nothing has been proved to be true of the anonymous claims, other inauguration days are set: October 5th and 7th 1817. However, the Imperial Court cautiously advertised the Banat’s itinerary as a wedding journey on the Bozovici route, in the Almaj County, to Sasca Montana, with two stops at Oravita.
Such halts are done on the evening of 5th and 7th of October 1817, when a local dilettante ensemble performed two pieces of theatre. Francis I of Austria and Carolina-Augusta attended the two shows from the official lodge of the first balcony, the left-hand lodge, looking from the hall to the stage. On the first evening, on October 5th 1817, a three-act play is presented, entitled “Humiliated Jealousy” by Johann Franul von Weissenthurm, and on the second evening the same ensemble is performing the play “The Laurel wreath or the power of law ” after Friedrich Wilhelm Ziegler’s play. The money gathered from both shows was donated to the “Poor’s Fund” as a charity. Unfortunately, none of the posters displayed the names of the artists, but only the played characters. The Imperial Suite consisted of 77 people, including Count von Bombelles, from whom we have the notes of this event, examined by the historian Costin Feneşan from Banat.
Although there have been twelve restorations since the inauguration until today, everything seen by the eyes of the participants at the inauguration can also be seen by the eyes of today’s visitors, including the inner theatre props, everything carrying the imprint of the late Baroque or of the Viennese Baroque.
Based on the contracts between the local officials and the professional bands, we have an entirely European presence on the stage of the theatre. If we put our imagination to work and think about the map of Europe, on the stage of Oraviţa theatre there were troops from the west, Alicante, to the east, St. Petersburg and Moscow, and from the central Europe, from Mitteleuropa, Budapest and Belgrade, but also with numerous presences from Vienna, in particular from the Burgtheater, from Graz and Innsbruck. Then, also from the north, from Paris, Berlin and Munich, from the south, Verona, Milan, Torino and Rome.
In Oraviţa we can talk about an active multiculturalism practiced here by the performances given by the local associations of the different ethnic groups, but also by the common shows starting at 3 pm and ending at ten o’clock, with small interludes, everything in a well established order. First, in German, then in Hungarian and finally in Romanian and sometimes also in Serbian language.
Regarding the presence of kings and queens, I would emphasize the visit of the royal family of Romania in June 1933. Carol the Second and Prince Mihai of Alba Iulia of that time were present in the same lodge where the imperial family had sat back in 1817. On the stage of the theatre, the current King Mihai received the title of “Banat Prince”.
In comparison with the first photographs kept with the theatre’s building, we can speak today of a few “novelties”.
A first novelty is the chairs that have replaced the benches from the inauguration, after the restoration of the year 1893. They are still the same since then till the very day, and only the red velvet of the chairs is renewed at each restoration. The chairs were finely crafted in amber-curved wood, a fashionable exotic wood at that time, executed by firms from Vienna and Vrsec.
Another novelty was the change of the resistance structure of the building, which until 1873 was made of only wood modules. Resident specialists were experimenting with a new steel at that time, which existed at position 24 according to the technical classification. Thus, the sleepers, the columns and the semicircle support were replaced with I profile steel beams and the Resicza 24 brand can still be seen today. Not long after, Eiffel, having friends and colleagues among the specialists from Resita, asks for the recipe, as he does also with the specialists from Graz, and based on these two recipes combined in the French factories, heimplements a few montages, embedding them afterwards in the tower from Paris; this would of course be an occasion of pride for the inhabitants from Resita, and from Mountainous Banat.
A last novelty would be the chandelier in the spectacle hall. Many visitors insist that we should explain where the “original” is. We cannot speak about one single chandelier. The current one is the 4th in the history of the building. The first chandelier was a banal girandole with a long rod that, based on a pulley system, went down to change the candles and later to change the lamps. It was dismantled in 1911 and taken to the locality Biserica Albă / White Church, a town in the Banat province at that time. Instead of it, respecting to a large extent the original model, a local firm installed a second beautiful chandelier.
On August 3rd 1919, when the Romanian army entered simultaneously in Budapest, Timişoara, Lugoj and Oraviţa, the chandelier was taken by a sergeant from the retreating Serbian army and taken to his family in Belgrade. Now it is divided into three parts in Serbia, one being in a building in Vrseć. In the interwar period, a local firm mounted the third chandelier, which, if we use our imagination, looked like the present one, but multiplied five-fold, each side descending in a larger and larger pyramid. This chandelier was taken to Timisoara when the regions were established, and the plain city was the capital of Banat region. So there won’t be any annoyance among the locals, the Guban company from Timisoara made another chandelier, which is the existing one today in the Oravita theatre.
Over the years, a long and brilliant array of ensembles and artists of Romanian culture performed on the stage of the oldest theatre in Romania, as for example: Mihail Pascaly (1868), Bucharest National Theatre led by Matei Millo (1870), G.A. Petculescu (1878), Zaharia Bârsan Dramatic ensemble (1906), Constantin Nottara Ensemble (1924), Cărăbuş Theatre with Constantin Tanase (1928), George Enescu (1931).
At Oraviţa, the operetta “New Moon” by Ciprian Porumbescu (January 7th 1889) was sung for the first time on the stage of a built theatre and Mozart’s music was played also for the first time in the Romanian cultural space “[Bota I., 2003, 2005].
Before entering the theatre building, look for a few moments at the facade and the exterior of the building. The building of the theatre was erected according to the plans and guidance of the architect Ion Nioane, an Aromanian from Oraviţa and a graduate of the Academy of Vienna.
The building is not only beautiful as a jewel, but also a solid stone edifice, erected for eternity, with the purpose of enlightening the mind and the soul by art and culture, to bring people beauty and joy. It has a length of 33 m and is 15 m wide, being built on two levels.
The façade is demarcated into three areas crafted in a particular way in the style of the late Baroque art: the central façade and the left-right lateral facades, on both sides of the main façade. The central façade is positioned in front in relation to the lateral one and has four columns with three front bolts facing the street and two lateral ones. The space above the columns is equally divided by three rectangular windows, with panes of glass, in crossed octopartites. Instead, on the side facades, the windows are hexagonal, both on the ground floor and on the floor.
The façade is closed at the top through a bi-triangular bend. It can be seen that the triangular front is double exposed: a small triangle engraved in a large one, both of them having a common base.
The three areas of the façade are demarcated by a double moulding made by an inventive dosine-cavity association, as a concave – convex double curvature that horizontally and alongside intersect the main façade and continue on the two extreme sides. The fancy of other decorative suggestions is given by the linear network that is horizontally arranged on the height of the columns of the main facade. The stripes leave for each column from the middle, six parallels, the seventh and the eighth being closed in the trapeze, above each column.
At the entrance to the theatre lies the main hall for receptions or balls and the Museum of Cultural History Caras, with a book library and an old press collection. From the foyer, you enter the large hall on the ground floor and, using a lateral staircase you can go up to the balcony.
The theatre hall is the architectural pearl of the Viennese Baroque in the Banat culture and civilization, made by Ion Niuni’s colleague Ieronymus Platzger, according to the copies of the Vienna Burgtheater’s model. The theatre hall is wonderfully decorated by the Rococo-style Francisc Knee-style painter, inspired by the Viennese butaforium.
The hall has a semicircular shape, with both the ground floor and the balcony. The grand hall together with the balcony and the lodgings totals 191 seats.
The stage of the theatre is lined with roof decking planks and plastered on a cane support to ensure over time the acoustic enclosure’s environment, one of the great “secrets” of the theatre in Oraviţa. There is no need for microphones on the stage, because the existing acoustic system makes any produced sound propagate throughout the hall without any disturbances. Behind the scenes there are the cabins of the actors, and under the stage we can see the “cage” of the prompter, where Mihai Eminescu stayed in 1868.
And later, on the 5th of November 1931 the great George Enescu himself came on this stage, enchanting the Caras audience with his exceptional musical performances.
Looking at the interior decoration, you will see the authentic Baroque art, in which the predominant colour is golden yellow, with rich and tasteful inlays, making the most of the lights and shadows. The ornamentation is stylized in garlands and roses of golden pine cone, with left-to-right ribbons and vertically, ties and roses. It is a unique theatre for the lovers of cultural tourism.