10 historic theatres in 4 countries—the creators of the Baltic Route encourage tourists and lovers of theatre to travel on an alternative route of special architectural sites which unites Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.
The treasures of Renaissance heritage in Italy, royal headquarters across Scandinavia, and Shakespeare’s British houses are now joined by those of the Baltic region with its unique theatre architecture. There are many things to see! Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia welcome you for a trip along the most beautiful and oldest theatres in this part of Europe. What do these old buildings tell us about its history? In the city of Riga, for example, we can find remnants of the state’s proclamation of independence, while the theatres of Warsaw hold memories of wartime bombings. Tallinn excites with its architecture, while Vilnius reminds us of what all the Baltic countries have in common.
The Art Nouveau Cieszyn
Our virtual walk begins in southern Poland, and the historic Adam Mickiewicz Theatre built in the art nouveau style in 1910, in the multi-cultural town of Cieszyn. It was designed by world-acclaimed architects Ferdinand Fellner and Friderick Helmer. The building is 5 stories high, and it is a very impressive monument in the heart of one of Poland’s oldest cities. It was initially meant to be a strictly German theatre, and during the official opening ceremony it was even underscored that not a word would be uttered on its stage in Polish. This was indeed the case for a decade, until the troupe of the Słowacki Theatre in Kraków came to Cieszyn and served the local audience a staging of Aleksander Fredro’s Revenge. After the Second World War, the theatre was handed over to the Cieszyn authorities and it was also enriched with a modern rotating stage.
The interiors are made up of three colours: white, gold, and red. The ceilings are adorned with stucco leaves, shells and peacock feathers, and Melpomena’s mask decorates the stage’s portal. Nowadays, the theatre is one of the most important architectural locations within the city, next to Castle Hill and the Hunting Castle.
And another precious piece of national heritage can be found in the nearby city of Kraków.
Almost Like Paris
For more than 120 years, this theatre has regularly been the place of encounters between romanticism and the avant-garde. Shaped on the basis of the Parisian Opera, the legendary stage has operated unceasingly since 1893. Enclosed within a renaissance-classicistic shape, the building has witnessed the birth of Poland’s contemporary craft of directing, acting, and stage design. It was here that the Young Poland generation made their debuts, led by Stanisław Wyspiański, and in the 1970s, the first stagings of Lupa’s productions were also announced on its posters and flyers.
The artists which were connected to the theatre at one stage or other in their creative work include: Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz, Helena Modrzejewska, Tadeusz Kantor, Ludwik Solski, Karol Frycz , Juliusz Osterwa, Stefan Jaracz, Tadeusz Łomnicki, Gustaw Holoubek and many other prominent figures. But that is not the sole reason for the exceptional place that the Słowacki Theatre occupies on the map of Kraków. This neo-renaissance building—richly decorated with sculptures and gold—was also the very first place to be lit with electric chandeliers.
The Aristocratic Łańcut
From Kraków, the Baltic Route leads on to a medieval castle in Łańcut, one of the most beautiful aristocratic residences in Poland. The residence owes its present shape to Izabella Czartoryska nee Lubomirska. It was thanks to her efforts that in the mid-18th century, music and theatre blossomed in the rooms of the castle. Many prominent artists worked here, including Szymon Bogumił Zug, Jan Christian Kamsetzer, Christian Piotr Aigner, Fryderyk Bauman, and Vincenzo Brenna.
One enters the theatre hall through a ballroom. The initial interior design of the castle was done in the baroque style, and a record from 1790 mentions a "big room with damask wall coverings with golden galloons."
"It was a typical théâtre de société—comedies and "living paintings" were played out by those who live in the castle, as well as their guests. In 1792, there was a staging of Jan Potocki’s Parades, written in French especially for the Łańcut stage. Around the year 1800, the theatre was rebuilt in a classicist manner, according to a design by Pierre Aigner. The audience seating area was covered over with a dome mounted on eight wooden Corinthian columns. The theatre had a very rich stock of costumes—a fact that is known thanks to the preserved archive records. The costume collection comprised Spanish costumes, exotic Turkish ones, a Harlequin outfit, Moliere’s Scapin’s attire and also magicians’ costumes—black robes with pointy hats."
The palace hosted such prominent guests as Prince Francis Ferdinand Hapsburg. The theatre room is still standing today, preserved as it was one hundred years ago.
Versailles at the Old Orangerie
Warsaw is represented on the Baltic Route by the picturesque Royal Theatre, a private stage of the King Stanisław Augustus, built by the architect Domenico Merlini. Unique on a world scale, it is one of the few remaining 18th-century royal theatres. Its history dates back to the year 1788, when the Old Orangerie hosted performances which accompanied celebrations such as the anniversary of defeating the Turks at the Battle of Vienna, and when it was home to showings of knightly ballets authored by the king himself. The legendary troupe of Wojciech Bogusławski also performed there, as well as artists such as Leon Schiller, Aleksander Zelwerowicz, Arnold Szyfman, and Juliusz Osterwa. The wooden construction miraculously survived the war, hidden within the Old Orangerie.
The interiors are also truly breath-taking. The 200-seat auditorium is decorated with antique statues, Corinthian columns, the royal coat of arms, and also … an elegant 17th-century audience, leaning over the balustrades. This decorative element is placed right above the heads of the real spectators. Professor Marek Kwiatkowski, the director of the Łazienki Royal park, described this element in a talk with the Polish Radio:
It is an incredibly interesting document of the period. The portrait of 18th-century spectators: there are noblemen with shaved heads, moustaches and the kontusz robe, but also a younger, more fashionable audience dressed in the French fashion. They sit in the royal balconies in their tail-coats, hats, lace, ostrich feathers and elegant dresses.
It's crowned with medallions of the 4 great playwrights: Sophocles, Shakespeare, Moliere, and Racine.
Theatre on the Barricades
In 1909, 27-year-old Arnold Szyfman had a doctorate in philosophy, empty pockets, and, the seemingly idiosyncratic idea of founding a great private dramatic theatre. Four years later, the modernist Polski (Polish) Theatre was raised at the back of Krakowskie Przedmieście Street—and it later becomes one of the most important places for theatre in the interwar period. To date, it has continued to function for more than 100 years.
The premiere showing of Zygmunt Krasicki’s Irydion in 1913 proved to point the direction for this theatre not only in terms of its artistic stance, but also in terms of its political development. It boasted the very first rotating stage in the country, a modernised prompter’s box, and a professional stage design studio. It was a place of great poetry and theatrical experiment, and hosted good French farce as well as patriotic manifestos. The elegant and intimate headquarters of the theatre had discreet interiors and was full of grace, impressing audiences of the period by bringing together the baroque and the antique, and with the white marble staircase that leads up to the foyer. With time, extra elements of blue and gold were added, as well as mirrors and stylish furniture.
This important Warsaw stage functioned without a break until 1939, and after the Germans took over Warsaw, the Theatre der Stadt Warschau was organised in the building. While destroying the city during the Warsaw Uprising in 1944, German soldiers spared this building. Some of the interior elements survived, as well as the rotating stage.
Vilnius' 'Lucky' Theatre
The Lithuanian Russian Dramatic Theatre was also known as the Pohulanka and it was the first professional stage in Vilnius, and one of the symbols of Poland’s presence in Lithuania. Many famous names in Polish theatre were associated with this place, among them the actresses Irena Eichlerówna, Nina Andrycz, Hanka Ordonówna and Hanka Bielicka. Danuta Szaflarska made her debut there. The theatre was raised with great toil and thanks to the initiative of a wealthy Vilnius citizen, Hipolit Korwin-Milewski. Private funds and social contributions from Vilnius' citizens all made it possible for the city to have a theatre of its own. It miraculously survived both world wars. For this reason, Regina Lopiene—head of Lithuania’s Museum of Theatre, Music and Cinema—calls it a true child of fortune.
At its beginning in 1913 Pohulanka was dominated by music shows, poor-quality opera stagings and operettas. And then, in 1925, the Reduta Institute arrived in Vilnius. The very first performance from this group led by Juliusz Osterwa was Wyzwolenie (Liberation) by Stanisław Wyspiański. The last was Polka w Ameryce (A Polish Woman in America). Over a period of four years, the troupe presented a total of 71 premieres in Vilnius. This is the reason why this theatre is more than just a piece of architectural heritage. Still open towards art from Poland, it also serves as a reminder of how much the two countries have in common. It was here that in 1922, Central Lithuania’s Diet made the decision to join the territory of Vilnius to the 2nd Polish Republic. Apart from the Poles, Lithuanians and Russians can also celebrate anniversaries at this theatre. Russians took over this theatre in 1986, prior to which the theatre was a place of development of contemporary Lithuanian theatre.
After Vilnius, it is time for Riga—the Baltic city of architectural heritage in all possible styles, from the Gothic and the Baroque through to Art Nouveau.
When the centre of Riga was being rebuilt in 1856, the site selected for the new theatre building was marked out in the most exposed part of the city, near the canal, in the place of a former urban fortification. In 1860, Ludwig Bohnstedt’s design was selected, and a Greek-classicist building was raised with a pompous north-eastern façade, decorated with a portico of Ionian columns and a group of allegoric statues. The theatre was opened in 1863. Richard Wagner, who worked in Riga for a few years, has his sculpted portrait hanging above the stage, always lit up during the stagings of his operas. Today, the headquarters of the Latvian National Opera and the National Ballet of Latvia are located in the building, and every summer the theatre season is crowned at the Theatre with the Riga Opera Festival.
One theatre is not enough! In 1897, the Riga authorities raised another Russian urban theatre. Opened within Swedish fortifications in 1902, the building played an important part in the history of the Latvian state. It was here that the country’s independence was proclaimed in 1918. The theatre was designed at a time when the first art nouveau buildings started to appear in Riga, thus a watchful observer can easily trace some elements from this period. It is also worth taking a look at the White Room on the first floor of the building, decorated with classical Ionian columns and plant motifs. The lighting, on the other hand, bears traces of the rococo style.
We set off to Tallinn in search of the oldest theatre in Estonia. In the very centre of the city, right by the entrance to the medieval monuments of the Old Town, we come across the Estonian Dramatic Theatre, raised in 1910 from local limestone. In Tartu, the second largest town in Estonia, and its cultural and intellectual capital, we can find the last historic monument on the Baltic Route.
The state Vanemuine Theatre can be recognised by its tall pillars, narrow windows and the wide balcony on its façade.
The official opening of the theatre took place on 19th October, 1918, with many enthusiastic descriptions of the interiors published in the local press. What seemed to draw the most attention was the foyer and the yellow-white room. The Postimees journal concluded with pride, "This new building has enriched the country and its tempting energy—we trust—will bring noble ideas straight to our homeland."
The European Route of Historic Theatres is an international programme realised in the 2012–2017 period, with the participation of 16 cultural institutions from 12 countries.