PARIS // “The true home of kings and the house of ages” is how Napoleon Bonaparte described the Palace of Fontainebleau, the royal residence that sits in the heart of a vast forest almost 60 kilometres south-east of Paris.
Fontainebleau started out as a 12th-century hunting lodge, 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.
Now, thanks to Abu Dhabi's sponsorship of the restoration of Fontainebleau's theatre, the name of the President, Sheikh Khalifa, will be added to an illustrious list that includes Francois I, Henry IV, Louis XIV, and Napoleon III.
On Wednesday evening, during an intimate ceremony hosted by Sheikh Sultan bin Tahnoon Al Nahyan, chairman of the Abu Dhabi Tourism & Culture Authority (TCA), and Aurelie Filippetti, the French minister for culture and communication, the newly renamed Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan Theatre was officially opened and applause was heard in the auditorium for the first time in more than 70 years.
The small, 430-seat theatre is one of the few to survive unmodified from the time of the French Second Empire (1852-1870). Napoleon III commissioned the Imperial Theatre in 1853 from Hector Lefuel, the palace architect who was later responsible for the renovation and completion of the Pavillion de Flore at the Palais du Louvre.
Directly inspired by Marie Antoinette’s theatre at Versailles, the theatre was inaugurated in May 1857 during the visit of the Grand Duke Constantine of Russia, brother of Tsar Alexander II, but used only about a dozen times during Napoleon III’s reign.
“The theatre was closed in 1868 when the royal court left Fontainebleau,” said Vincent Cochet, Fontainebleau’s curator.
“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.”
The theatre’s renaissance came in 2007 when, almost exactly 150 years after its inauguration, the Government of Abu Dhabi offered to finance its restoration with an annual renewable grant of €5 million (Dh25.5m).
“People thought about the restoration in the 1930s, in the 1960s and in the 1980s, but thanks to the sponsorship, we have been finally able to do it now,” said Mr Cochet.
“It will take another three years before the restoration is finally complete. In the second phase, we have to consider all of the smaller rooms around the auditorium, as well as the old machinery and all of the elements backstage.”
These include the stage curtain, proscenium, draperies and 250 stage sets, including scenes of cities, a Gothic interior, a prison and even a Moorish palace.
Before work could begin on the restoration of the auditorium’s musical cupids, gilded mouldings, yellow damask walls and its two-tonne bronze-and-cut-crystal chandelier – which had crashed to the floor in 1926 – it took a team of architects and conservators five years to complete all the necessary survey work. At the same time, vital repairs were made to the theatre’s roof.
As Mr Cochet explained, the idea is not to turn the theatre into a fully functioning performance space.
“The idea of a working theatre was abandoned in favour of a restoration and display as a museographic space – yet with the possibility of organising performances five times a year,” he said.
As part of the opening ceremony, a programme of works by the French Baroque composer, Jean-Philippe Rameau, was performed on period instruments in front of an audience that included Dr Zaki Nusseibeh, Cultural Adviser to the UAE Ministry of Presidential Affairs, Mubarak Al Muhairi, the director general of TCA Abu Dhabi, and Mohammed Al Raisi, the UAE’s Ambassador to France, along with Jean-Luc Martinez, the president-director of the Louvre Museum.
After the concert, guests were given a tour of the palace, which is a Unesco World Heritage site, before attending a reception in the spectacular 16th-century Galerie des Cerfs.
This is a former library, commissioned by the French renaissance monarch Henry IV, which is decorated with stags’ heads and large panoramic maps of royal chateaux and hunting grounds.
From tomorrow, the Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan Theatre will be open to the public as part of an itinerary covering the Second Empire at Fontainebleau.
“In France, it has been thought that the style of the Second Empire was rather lacking in imagination,” Mr Cochet said. “But when you see the theatre now, it is like arriving back in the Second Empire.
“Before we had a grey theatre, but now we have a bright theatre and we can show the reality.”