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The First Odessa City Theatre

One can recognize quite a few peculiar traits of many beautiful cities in Odessa, however Odessa is unique.

This city founded on the Black Sea shore in 1794 is not a replication but a blend, a melting pot of cultures, customs, traditions, beliefs and bloods. Upon its builders’ will, Odessa had embodied all urban construction experience accumulated by the beginning of the 19th century. People compared Odessa to Paris in 1810 and they considered it to be one of the wealthiest and the most beautiful cities of Europe just thirty years afterwards.

A young port city had a theatre that ranged among the best European ones in the beginning of the 19th century. The city’s mayor, an outstanding statesman Duke de RICHELIEU, initiated construction of the first theatre in Odessa. The people living in Odessa today call him “duke” for short up to now, and do it with great love and warmth. Being preoccupied with military, commercial, construction and other thoughts Duke de Richelieu did not forget that Odessa was a blend of cultures and languages and understood that music was the best means to connect people with different interests and traditions. The best voices of Europe sang in the theatre at Richelieu time. They sang in that very theatre that was built with Duke and set in PUSHKIN’s poetry forever (Eugene Onegin):

But dusk, dark blue, is darkening, gleaming,
The Opera awaits, we race,
There ever-charming-us, Rossini,
All Europe’s darling, Orpheus plays!
He pays no heed to direst critics;
Always the same, yet new, and witty,
He pours forth sounds: and how they boil!
And how they flow and burn and hiss!
Passion’d as young lovers who kiss
In bliss, in happiness of love,
Like champagne, ever bubbling, rolling,
In streams and sprays of droplets golden
But folks, is it perhaps a crime,
With do-re-mi comparing wine?

The building for the first Odessa City Theatre was constructed upon the design project of an Italian architect Francesco FRAPPOLLI with some changes made by a French architect Thomas de THOMON, who designed many buildings in St Petersburg, the capital of Russian Empire. The grand opening night took place on the 10th of February 1810. A snow-white building was facing the port and resembled an ancient Greek temple. The auditorium numbered 800 seats (at that time Odessa had 12.5 thousand people). Three tiers had 44 seats behind which there was some semicircular space where about 700 people could enjoy the performance standing as in Italian old theatres.

The memoirs read, “The auditorium had three tiers with seventeen boxes, the balcony was right under the ceiling. The ceiling, though, was so low that the visitors almost touched it with their heads. There was no chandelier at that time as it was put up later. The auditorium was lit with lard or wax candles put into the candleholders. Each candleholder had 5 candles in it and was fixed on the external wall of the boxes. The stage was lit with big oil lamps. The balcony did not have any lightening so the stage lights seemed too bright for our eyes. The theatre had its specific smell of burning candles and perfumes”.

An opera in one act “New Family“ by Sergey VYAZMITINOV and a vaudeville “Mourning or Consoled Widow” by Jacob KNYAZHIN were on stage on the day when the City Theater was first opened. They were staged by the Porphyry Fortunatov’s Drama Company staged the shows; Prophyry FORTUNATOV was a Russian actor and entrepreneur. On signing the contract with the Russian Prince A. Shakhovsky’s Drama Company in 1811 regular shows started in the theatre. Prince Alexander SHAKHOVSKY was a playwright, a member of the Russian Literature Academy and a literary society “Conversations between Fans”. The repertoire had tragedies, vaudevilles and comic operas.

However, 11 years later Russian companies stopped performing in the City Theatre and Italian opera commenced its dominance. Some Italian entrepreneurs, such as Giuseppe MONTOVANNI, Josef ZAMBONNI and Guillermo BUANAVOLIO and others, obtained monopoly on productions in the City Theatre.

The word ‘opera’ appeared in the name of the theatre later, in the 20th century as at first the theater was called simply the City Theatre. Its stage saw performances of the famous opera singers, Imperial and Royal theatrical companies. Drama and comedies also frequented the stage. The playbills were full of famous actors and playwrights’ names. Ballet divertissements in operas and ballet performances entered the theatre repertoire a bit later.

The opera repertoire of the first City Theatre included works by Gioachino ROSSINI, Vincenzo BELLINI, Domenico CIMAROSA, Gaetano DONIZETTI, and Giuseppe VERDI. The Odessa audience applauded to Ekaterina AMATI, Arrigo and Angelica CATALANI, Giuseppe MARINI, Ekaterina PATTI-BARILLA, Josefina and Teresina BRAMBILLA, Ponti del ARMI, Alde BIANCA.

Alexander Pushkin admitted that Italian opera in Odessa “restored his soul”.