Teatru Manoel is reputed to be Europe's third-oldest working theatre, and the oldest working theatre in the Commonwealth of Nations. Located on Old Theatre Street (Triq it-Teatru l-Antik) in Valletta, it is now Malta's National Theatre and home to the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra (Orkestra Filarmonika Nazzjonali).
Following centuries of unrest and a myriad of conquerors, the rule of the Military Order of St. John brought about a period of unprecedented stability and development to the Maltese Islands. The newly constructed fortified capital, Valletta, administrative centre and home to the variety of nationalities forming the Order, witnessed a further development as the islands’ cultural and entertainment hub.
Throughout the 17th and early 18th centuries, the demand for operas, pageants, theatrical and dramatic productions boomed as the Maltese embraced what had previously been entertainment reserved solely for the Nobility. Shows put on by amateurs and theatre professionals were then housed at the Knight’s Auberges around the city or in the open.
In 1731, António Manoel de Vilhena, Grand Master of the Knights of Malta, commissioned and personally funded the construction of this central building to serve as a Public Theatre.It was constructed in just ten months and cost 2,184 scudi. The Portuguese Grand Master built the theatre to keep the young knights of the Order of St. John out of mischief but also to provide the general public with "honest entertainment." This motto was inscribed above the main entrance to the theatre, which still reads today: "ad honestam populi oblectationem". The first performance on the 19th January 1732 , was a classic Italian tragedy, Scipione Maffei’s Merope. The players in that production were the Knights themselves, and the set was designed by the Knights` chief architect, Francois Mondion.
The management of the theatre and the censorship of the performances was in the hands of a knight who was called “Il Protettore”.
In those days, opera performed by professionals was performed at least as often as drama. Works by the great master of "opera seria" Johann Adolf Hasse were often performed during the theatre’s early decades, but just as popular throughout the century was the rival "opera buffa" by leading composers like Nicolo` Piccinni, Baldassare Galuppi and Domenico Cimarosa.
The continuous theatrical exchange between Naples, Palermo and Valletta made Teatru Manoel a natural stepping stone for aspiring artists `to step up the ladder leading to La Scala or Covent Garden`.
The first impresario of whom we have record was Melchiorre Prevvost Lanarelli in 1736, and the last Giovanni Le Brun in 1866. From 1768 to 1770 the impresario was a woman, a certain Natala Farrugia.
Grand Master de Vilhena fixed the rent to be paid by the Impresario at 320 scudi per annum, of which 80 scudi were paid for rent from Easter to August, 120 scudi for Autumn, and 120 scudi from Christmas to Carnival. From the records we learn that when dances or veglioni (masked balls) were held in the theatre, the pit was raised by scaffolding to the level of the stage, and we find that on August 22, 1778, regulations were passed for the lighting of the theatre and corridors. On these occasions the shading of lights, in any manner, was prohibited, so as to keep the entertainment in the theatre, as honest as possible !
The early decades of the 20th century saw the Manoel presenting the operetta and the musical comedy as well as some opera and plays, both amateur and professional, in Malta’s three main languages. By the late Twenties, however, the cinema had such a following, that the Manoel began to present films much more than anything else, and this role it retained for around twenty years.
During the Second World War it escaped any serious damage. It served as a shelter for the homeless, victims of the same carpet bombings that sealed the fate of the Opera House, totally destroyed in 1944. After this war, the building needed a thorough refurbishment and some restoration. A decade-long restoration process by local traditional artisans and international experts saw the transformation of the building into a multi-functional theatre. The once lovely decoration of the atrium was restored from behind the grime and paint which had for so long hidden the theatre’s beauty. Inch by inch, the great ceiling with its 22 carat gilding was restored; the dozens of tiny panels and paintings which decorated the tiers of boxes were brought to life again.
The theatre was bought back by the Maltese Government in 1957. The Grand re-Opening ceremony in December 1960, left the audience gasping with delight at this newly rediscovered jewel in Malta’s National Heritage, and heralded the new beginning of the Manoel. Now officially the country’s National Theatre, it has, over the years, hosted countless productions by both local talent and international stars, and has been the catalyst for the growth and appreciation of dramatic art in Malta. Since 1960, when it reopened with a performance of Coppelia by the Ballet Rambert, it has had an official Management Committee and it is no longer rented out for whole seasons to impresarios as in the past.
The Manoel’s programmes retained, and continue to retain, their old variety, but the main emphasis during recent decades has been on instrumental music.