Restoration of drama at French chateau

The Connexion reports on the recently completed restoration of Napoléon III’s Imperial Theatre in Fontainebleau

28 August 2019
The Imperial Theatre restored to former glory
By Samantha David

The Imperial Theatre at the Château of Fontainebleau (Seine-et-Marne) has re-opened after a €10million restoration project lasting over a decade and the Head Curator, Vincent Cochet, says the results are stunning.

“The 400-seat theatre was built very fast, between 1853-1856 by Napoléon III in order to provide amusement for the Court and was the most luxurious, the most sumptuous ever constructed. There were chairs instead of benches, for example, and no expense was spared.”

The upholstery was silk, the carpets were floral, and the theatre was heavily decorated with gilt.

The parterre, used by officials and the military, was sunken and deliberately darkened so that it would disappear during a performance, leaving a clear view for the Emperor.

Only a dozen performances were ever staged at the theatre, however, the last one being in 1868, and gradually it fell into disrepair.

It was only opened again in the 1920s, explains Vincent Cochet when an American company worked there. “Then in 1936, Dumas fils put a show on, hoping to bring the theatre back to life, but the war was looming and the theatre was in terrible shape.

Access areas too have been given a new lease of life – but the royal balcony is out of bounds! Work began on restoring carpets, wall-hangings and chairs in 2012

“During the occupation the chateau was taken over by Nazi troops and the theatre was used for all kinds of meetings, films, anything. After the Liberation, it was actually in a hazardous condition, so the theatre was closed to prevent any accidents. Various proposals were tabled in the 1960s and 1980s but our project only began in 2007.”

The actual work began in 2012 after five years of studies and plans.

And a major decision had to be taken.

Was the refurbished theatre to be a working one, or a historical monument? “In the 1990s, the attitude to restoration was completely different; people re-wove fabrics and re-made wallpaper and furniture, rather than saving the originals. But for us, the theatre is an exhibit only to be used for two or three performances per year. So we took the decision to save all the carpets, wall-hangings, and furniture, including the chairs and restored them, rather than replace them with replicas. So visitors will see the original theatre, complete with the original scenery and equipment.”

For all these reasons, visitors are not allowed to wander all over the theatre, but can view it from various angles through clear glass panes.

They can go into the parterre and admire the theatre from there, but there is no public access to the royal balcony. For performances, the original furniture is replaced and protective covers are rolled out over the carpets.

“The theatre has been re-opened to the public in two stages, the auditorium and parterre was completed in 2014, and now we have completed the higher balconies and also the backstage areas.

“So our work now is to maintain the theatre as long as possible. Obviously as a theatre, there is no natural daylight and we control the light very strictly, and prevent people from touching things.”

He says people love the results. “We really went a long way; we made the lighting as it would have been, the right intensity of light, the right temperature... we have a lot of old scenery too, which is very fragile and needs the correct lighting. Theatre performances during the Second Empire were very different from today, the functioning was very different. The audience was lit up throughout the performance, for example.”

Opening times are the same as for the chateau, and there are several guided (obligatory) visits per day. chateaudefontainebleau.fr

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