29 January 2022

It looks like a Roman Theatre,
but the Royal Opera House
in Valletta has a curious story

The ruins of the Royal Opera House look like the ruins of a classical theatre or temple (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

At first, I thought had come face-to-face with ancient Roman ruins in Valletta, the capital of Malta. The pillars and columns, and the classical looking structure, had me asking whether this was the site of a Roman theatre or temple.

It turns out that site on Valletta’s man street, close to the Maltese Parliament and close to the Osborne Hotel on South Street, where I was staying last week, is the ruins of the Royal Opera House, or the Royal Theatre, a relatively modern, English-style concert hall.

It looks like something from the classical world and seems older than it is. But it serves Valletta as an open-air theatre.

The Royal Opera House, also known as the Royal Theatre (It-Teatru Rjal), was designed by the English architect Edward Middleton Barry (1830-1880), son of Sir Charles Barry, the architect of the Houses of Parliament in Westminster.

Edward Middleton Barry was the architect of Covent Garden Theatre. His classic design plan for the theatre in Valletta was completed by 1861. His original plans had to be altered because he had not taken account of the sloping streets on the sides of the theatre. This resulted in a terrace being added on the side of Strada Reale, now Republic Street, designed by Maltese architects.

Building started in 1862, after the Casa della Giornata was demolished. After four years, the Opera House, with a seating capacity of 1,095 and 200 standing, was ready for the official opening on 9 October 1866.

The theatre was not to last long. On 25 May 1873, a mere six years after its opening, it was struck by fire, and the interior was extensively damaged. The exterior of the theatre was undamaged but the interior stonework was calcified by the intense heat.

The theatre was eventually restored by 1877 and after nearly 4½ years, the theatre reopened on 11 October 1877, with a performance of Verdi’s Aida. In time, it became one of the most beautiful and iconic buildings in Valletta.

During World War II, the theatre received a direct hit from Luftwaffe bombers on the night of Tuesday 7 April 1942. The portico and the auditorium were a heap of stones, the roof a gaping hole of twisted girders. However, the rear end starting half way from the colonnade was left intact.

The remaining structures were levelled down in the late 1950s as a safety precaution. It is German prisoners-of-war in Malta offered to rebuild the theatre in 1946, but the government declined their offer due to trade union pressure. All that remained of the Opera House were the terrace and parts of the columns.

The Royal Opera House was destroyed by German bomns in 1942 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Although the bombed site was cleared of much of the rubble and all of the remaining decorative sculpture, rebuilding was repeatedly postponed by successive post-war governments in favour of reconstruction projects that were deemed to be more pressing.

Six renowned architects submitted designs for the new theatre in 1953. The plans of Zavellani-Rossi were recommended to the Government, but the project ground to a halt on Labour’s re-election. Although a provision of £280,000 for rebuilding the theatre was made in the 1955-1956 budget, this never happened. By 1957, the project had been shelved and after 1961 all references to the theatre were omitted from development plans.

In the 1980s contact was made with the architect Renzo Piano to design a building on the site and to rehabilitate the entrance to the city. Piano’s plans received government approval in 1990, but work never started.

Then, in 1996, a new Labour Government announced the site would be developed as a commercial and cultural complex, including an underground car park, as Malta's millennium project. In the late 1990s, the Maltese architect Richard England was also commissioned to design a cultural centre. Each time, however, controversies killed off all initiatives.

In 2006, the government announced a proposal to redevelop the site for a dedicated House of Parliament, which by then was located in the former Armoury of the Grandmaster's Palace in Valletta.

Renzo Piano was then approached and started to work on new designs. His proposal was shelved until after the general elections of 2008. The Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi revived the proposal on 1 December 2008 with a budget of €80 million. Piano dissuaded the Government from building a Parliament on site of the Opera House, instead planning a House of Parliament on present-day Freedom Square and re-modelling the city gate. At the same time, Piano proposed an open-air theatre for the site.

Piano’s development of the theatre was controversial at the time. But the government went ahead with the plans and the open-air theatre was officially opened on 8 August 2013. The theatre was named Pjazza Teatru Rjal after the original structure, meaning Royal Theatre Square.

Remains of the original theatre have been conserved in the 2013 development (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

With the Saints through Christmas (35):
29 January 2022, Saint Dominic

The Basilica of Saint Dominic, also known as the Basilica of Our Lady of Fair Havens and Saint Dominic, is one of the three parish churches in Valletta (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

I was in Malta last week, and in Valletta it seems as though every street – or every second street – inside the walls of the capital of Malta, is named after a saint.

Before a busy day begins, I am taking some time early this morning for prayer, reflection and reading.

I have been continuing my Prayer Diary on my blog each morning, reflecting in these ways:

1, Reflections on a saint remembered in the calendars of the Church during the Season of Christmas, which continues until Candlemas or the Feast of the Presentation, next Wednesday (2 February);

2, the day’s Gospel reading;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

This week, I am continuing to reflect on saints and their association with prominent churches or notable street names in Malta, which I visited last week. This morning I am reflecting on the Basilica of Saint Dominic, also known as the Basilica of Our Lady of Fair Havens and Saint Dominic.

Saint Dominic (1170-1221), was a Castilian priest and founder of the Dominican Order. He is the patron saint of astronomers, and his feast day is 8 August. Another great Dominican saint, Saint Thomas Aquinas, was commemorated in the Church Calendar yesterday (28 January 2022).

The Basilica of Saint Dominic in Valletta, also known as the Basilica of Our Lady of Fair Havens and Saint Dominic, is one of the three parish churches in the Maltese capital. It is administered by the Dominican Order whose convent is behind the church.

The land the church and convent are built on weas given to the Dominicans by the Grand Master of the Order of Saint John or the Knights of Malta, Pierre de Monte. The architect Girolamo Cassar was commissioned to draw up the plans. The first stone was laid on 19 April 1571.

The parish was formed on 2 July 1571 by a decree from Pope Pius V, considered as the benefactor of the construction of Valletta. It was dedicated to Our Lady of Fair Havens because of the large number of sailors who went to the small chapel built by the Dominicans before building the large church to thank the Virgin Mary for their safe return to harbour after long and dangerous sea voyages.

The papal decree also declared that the parish of Saint Dominic would be the principal parish church of the city.

The church was closed and declared unsafe on 24 July 1780 after it was damaged by earthquakes and severe storms. A new church was built on the same site of the original church 25 years after it was closed.

The new church was opened and blessed on 15 May 1815. The church was given the status of a minor basilica on 25 March 1816. The church was finally consecrated on 15 October 1889 by Archbishop Pietro Pace.

The wooden altar candle holders were stolen from the church, but were found online when their new owner tried to sell them.

The church is listed on the National Inventory of the Cultural Property of the Maltese Islands.

Saint Dominic (1170-1221) … a statue outside the Basilica of Our Lady of Fair Havens and Saint Dominic in Valletta (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Mark 4: 35-41 (NRSVA):

35 On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, ‘Let us go across to the other side.’ 36 And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. 37 A great gale arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. 38 But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’ 39 He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. 40 He said to them, ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’ 41 And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’

The new church opened in 1815, became a minor basilica in 1816, and was consecrated in 1889 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

The Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (29 January 2022) invites us to pray:

We pray for peace and reconciliation worldwide, and an end to religious conflict.

Yesterday: Saint Paul’s Shipwreck, Valletta

Tomorrow: Charles King and Martyr

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org