Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 21 September 2019

Inside Paris's Sheikh Khalifa Theatre: 16th-century French treasure now open after UAE donation drives restoration

During a state visit to France in 2007, President Sheikh Khalifa pledged to help restore the deserted theatre, giving his patronage to the project

A 19th-century French theatre was in the spotlight in Paris on Tuesday night, hosting a grand reopening after a painstaking restoration made possible with funding from the Department of Culture and Tourism - Abu Dhabi.

The Napoleon III theatre at Fontainebleau Palace, located south of Paris, was built between 1853 and 1856 under the reign of the nephew of emperor Napoleon I.

“The true home of kings and the house of ages” is how Napoleon Bonaparte described the Palace of Fontainebleau, at the time.

Fontainebleau started out as a 12th-century hunting lodge, which was transformed into a palace in the 16th century and became associated with every French ruler – king, queen, empress and emperor – for almost 800 years.

However, the gilded theatre fell into disuse, after only hosting around a dozen performances between 1857 and 1870, when it was abandoned in 1870 after the fall of Napoleon III.

“The theatre was closed in 1868 when the royal court left Fontainebleau,” Vincent Cochet, head heritage curator for the Palace of Fontainebleau, told The National in 2017.

“After that, it was only used once in 1936, and about 10 times during the Second World War. In 1941, it was decided that it was too dangerous to keep the theatre open. Everything in the theatre is made of wood and there were only candles to light the space. It has been closed since then.”

But during a state visit to France in 2007, President Sheikh Khalifa pledged to help restore the deserted 400-seat theatre, giving his patronage to the project.

After the project that has lasted 12 years, the theatre is now being reopened with funding from the Department of Culture and Tourism - Abu Dhabi.

The ten year reconstruction

An official inauguration was hosted by French Culture Minister Franck Riesteron on Tuesday, and attended by Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Co-operation, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, and Minister of Culture and Knowledge Development, Noura Al Kaabi.

Now called the Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan Theatre, it is the latest example of the close relations between Paris and Abu Dhabi.

Led by Patrick Ponsot, chief architect of historic monuments for the French government, Vincent Cochet and Jean-Paul Gousset, technical director for the royal Opera at Versailles, the first phase of the theatre’s conservation and restoration, which focused specifically on the auditorium, vestibule and imperial foyer on the second floor, was completed in 2014.

The works included the removal of hazardous asbestos and lead, the reinforcement of the floors and foundations, and the strengthening of the walls and the updating of the lighting in the auditorium.

This picture taken on June 17, 2019 shows technicians putting the finishing touches to the restored imperial theatre at the Fontainebleau palace in Fontainebleau some 60 kms south-east of Paris. / AFP / Christophe ARCHAMBAULT
Technicians put the finishing touches to the restored theatre. AFP

For us, the goal in restoring this building is to successfully navigate the transition to the modern world, but to do this while appearing to have done nothing

Vincent Cochet, head heritage curator

The stage, the back-of-house areas, the scenery, upper foyers and actors’ quarters were the focus of the final phase of restoration works, which began in 2017.

“For us, the goal in restoring this building is to successfully navigate the transition to the modern world, but to do this while appearing to have done nothing,” explained Cochet.

“We have given the theatre the name of the person who is financing its restoration, and for us this a very valuable partnership between this chateau, which represents all of the kings of France, and the emirate of Abu Dhabi.”

Following its restoration, the theatre will host select concerts, but will mostly welcome visitors and tourists through guided tours, to help preserve its fragile structure.

Updated: June 20, 2019 12:05 PM

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