Imperial Court Theatre (Burgtheater)

Imperial Court Theatre (Burgtheater) (20)

The Burgtheater, better known by the Viennese as Die Burg, is home to the Imperial and Royal Court Theatre of Vienna

It all began in 1741 when the Empress Maria Teresa wished to have a theatre close to the palace, and entrusted an unused ballroom to the theatre company Sellier, thus explaining the former name, Hofburgtheater. In 1776 Joseph II reorganized the theatre and elevated it to the status of a national theatre. However, as a result of expansion of the city the theatre ended up being located in the middle of the Palace, so in 1874 it was decided to demolish it and rebuild it in its current location. 

The decision to demolish the theatre caused great convulsion throughout the city and crowds gathered around the theatre, wailing and even trying to make off with a piece of wood from the stage. The truth was the city's residents could not understand how they could demolish this temple of music and theatre which, for example, was the first ever venue to stage The Marriage of Figaro, considered one of Mozart's finest works, on the 1st of May, 1786.

Those responsible for constructing the new building for the institution were the architects Gottfried Semper and Karl Freiherr von Hasenauer. On the 14th of October, 1888, then, the magnificent Burgtheather opened in presence of the Emperor Franz Joseph and his family who, incidentally, had a private entrance.

Difficult as it is to imagine, this splendid building in front of you was almost entirely destroyed 48 years later. Bombing during World War II left only the wings and the grand staircase intact. Fortunately, subsequent restoration at the hands of Michel Engelhart was of such quality that the theatre still retains all its former glory.

Today, this prestigious institution is one of the leading auditoriums in German-speaking countries and its company is recognized worldwide.

With a programme entirely in German, the Burgtheater has assumed the challenge of combining classic and contemporary pieces and even experimental theatre and dramatized readings. It also holds the honour of being the second oldest theatre in the world still in operation, after the Comédie Française.

Visitors will notice the beautiful white marble façade decorated with pillars and Corinthian columns, the windows crowned with busts of famous writers the likes of Moliere, Shakespeare, Goethe or Schiller as well as the various allegorical figures representing love, hate, modesty, domination, selfishness and heroism. 

The balustrade features a series of carved cherubs holding musical instruments. And at the top of the main façade you will notice a statue of Apollo sitting between Melpomene and Thalia, the muses of tragedy and comedy, designed by Kundman and situated above a frieze of Bacchus and Ariadne, by Rudolf Weyr. And a little higher up you will spot two statues of the muses of music and theatre crowning the building.

The real show, however, takes place in the interior. The spectacular staircase with enormous candelabrum, marvellous frescoes, crystal chandeliers... All decorated in the imperial colours of ecru, red and gold. Without doubt this is one of the most beautiful theatres in the world. 

Highlights of its magnificent interior include, aside from the room itself and the two large staircases that lead to the elegant, spacious, 60-metre-long, curved vestibule, the splendid frescoes by Franz Matsch and the brothers Ernst and Gustav Klimt. Special mention should be made of the depictions, on the one hand, of the classical theatre of Taormina, and on the other the Globe Theatre in London and the final scene of Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare. These works, painted between 1886 and 1888, so delighted the Emperor Franz Joseph that he conferred both the artist and his collaborators with the Golden Cross of Merit. 

Beside the steps there is a series of busts representing the great playwrights. More recently a series of photographs of great contemporary Austrian actors has been incorporated.

The main theatre (the building also houses some smaller halls) has a capacity for 1300 spectators. The stage itself is not to be outdone either, and is one of the largest in the world at 28.5 metres wide, 23 metres deep and 28 metres high. In addition it features some very innovative automated systems that can, for example, change the entire scenery in just 40 seconds. 

The worldwide reputation of the theatre is reflected in the approximately 410,000 people who attend the nearly 800 performances held throughout the season.

If, for a question of language, you do not feel like attending one of the theatrical performances, remember that guided tours are available, which illustrate the history of the Burgtheater and at least allow the visitor to admire the building and its wonderful ornamentation. 

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