Opera House Ruins – Pjazza Teatru Rjal
The site of the former Valletta Royal Opera House is also the subject of one of the most heated controversial debates that ever gripped the Maltese Islands, dividing artists, politicians and the entire Maltese population over the Renzo Piano Open Theatre design that was unveiled in 2013.
But let’s take a few steps back, all the way to October 1866, when the very first incarnation of the site – the majestic Royal Opera House – was inaugurated with a performance of Bellini’s I Puritani. The neo-classical building was designed by architect Edward Middleton Barry, who was also responsible for designing the Covent Garden Theatre and the National Gallery in London.
Given this was the mid-19th century, you’d be forgotten for thinking that such a lavish space (the opera house had a seating capacity of almost 2000 people and extra standing room) for such a small city was a bit extra. In reality, opera was one of the biggest forms of entertainment at the time, and the much smaller Teatru Manoel was struggling to cope with demand.
But after its grand opening, the opera house was to be plagued by a series of misfortunes throughout its short lifetime. In May 1873 its exterior was extensively damaged when a fire broke out during rehearsals. It would take another four and a half years before the site was ready to receive an audience once more.
Upon reopening in 1877, the opera house enjoyed almost seven decades of rich repertoire, playing host to some of the top European opera singers and musicians of the time, its imposing architecture making it one of the more popular performance spaces in Europe.
But disaster didn’t take too long to strike once again and, on Tuesday April 7 in 1942 the building was brought down by Luftwaffe air bombers which left the entire site devastated, the only survivors being the Corinthian columns and the stone periphery.
Renzo Piano’s Open Air Theatre
These columns were to become a staple Valletta postcard feature until 2006, when works on the new Renzo Piano proposal kicked off amid much controversy. With the new designs not including any form of roof or shelter, complaints poured in fast and furious and naysayers soon dubbed the project ‘Renzo Piano’s Roofless Theatre’. Eventually, the controversy died down and today, the open air theatre has been renamed Pjazza Teatru Rjal and established itself as a massive Valletta landmark. It is the site of regular music, dance and theatrical performances.
So were the naysayers correct in criticising the decision to go open-air? We will let you visit the site and decide for yourself. But one fun fact worth mentioning here is that the Maltese are vibrant and sometimes loud people. It’s not the first time that a performance has had to be paused until petards, or a nearby band march, were done!