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Comoedien-Haus

alias Opera-Haus
history of the theatresupplementtechnical dataHistoric equipment

Important events

(detail)1701 | opening

(detail)1725 | Alteration

(detail)1738 | closure

People

History

The first permanent theatre opened for public in Prague is inseparably connected with the personality and destiny of count Franz Anton von Sporck.  He is considered to be a peculiar figure among the aristocracy of that time.   They despised him because of his pedigree for his father was a herdsboy in Westphalia before he achieved  the title of nobility thanks to a successful career in the army.  That was a considerable handicap in a society, of which feature was conceiving the class barriers as natural and where an appropriate family pedigree opened the gates to wealth, prestige and power.   These barriers in his social environment caused that he had been never fully accepted among his equals.  This fact is also understood in numerous literature about his as a significant impetus for his activeness and sponsorship, which were a substantial feature of his mentality.  He belonged among intellectuals whose thinking combined impulses of early Enlightenment with unorthodox schools of thought.  The Enlightenment thinking generally inclined to conceive the role of the theatre, apart of its aesthetic dimension, as an educational one and also the count believed that comedies contributed to "education of the mob most effectively".  He was engaged in publishing spiritual literature and at the same time, he conducted a considerable number of nitpicking disputes.   His unconventional mind and ideological affinity to Jansenism exposed him to prosecution by the Inquisition, but that had its roots in a property dispute with his Jesuits neighbours at the Kuks castle.  The problem was further deepened by his unconventional behaviour  for the criteria of the period and caused nuisance in the church spheres of that time.  If there is anything that the literature about the count is agreed upon, it is a characteristic of his person as a full of contradiction.  A feature that is ascribed not only to him but to the entire epoch.

 

Being led among other by the effort to enhance his prestige in the rigid class society, his sponsoring, which also enabled the existence of a permanent theatre company, brought several stable spaces into existence that were dedicated to theatre as happened on his residences at Kuks, Valkeřice by Děčín and Lysá nad Labem as well as the theatre that came into existence in the garden of his Prague palace.  The last one was built between 1694 and 1699 to the design by Jean Baptiste Mathey. A theatre building was erected in its garden that was ceremonially opened on count's birthday on 4th October of 1701,  10. which were also ostentatiously celebrated every year.

 

The theatre had a separated entrance from the Na poříčí Street.  There is not much known about its outer and inner appearance.   The one storey building was made completely out of wood, was probably simple and modest with boxes in the dress circle. Theatre performances were sometimes accompanied by music that was created by a group composed of his servants.  The building was also lent to touring theatre companies of German, Italian and French nationality.  Apart of that, the count had a theatre company in the head with A. J. Geisler in his services from 1708. This theatre was made accessible to public shortly after its opening and it was possible here to pay an entrance fee according to the model of North Italian cities.

 

The existence of this venue caused many disputes, in which the count was engaged.  Members of his theatre company stuck up posters without approval that were inviting to theatre performances.  If the performances were private, there wouldn't be no reason for the authorities to ban these activities.  However, this harmed theatre activities of Frederico Giovanni Sartori who had a regular licence from vicegerency.  His company performing from 1703 at the Lower Side pressed charges against the count's actors for unfair competition. The count, always eager to go passionately to the court, protested and after his subjects continued their activity, two of them were arrested in February of 1705, but they were subsequently released, because their argument that they were obliged to follow count's orders as his subjects was accepted in the New Town municipal jail.  The count appealed up to the emperor, but the public performances were to be approved in advance by the vicegerency. The litigation subsided after 1707.

 

Aristocratic theatre in the 18th century had a wider social role than the mere consumption of the culture.  As a place for social pastime, it represented a sort of a parallel to salons on a larger scale that wasn't that much closed as the private aristocratic theatres.  In the grand theatres of the proscenium type theatre, the owners of boxes spent there the entire evening and watching a performance was often only one of possible activities apart of having conversation or watching other spectators ( and that's why the horse-shoe shape of the auditorium).  A large part of social life of high society occurred here including intrigues, scandals and romantic affairs as well as prostitution in some periods.

 

In this particular era, the opera became to be a fashionable novelty at the European courts.  It was staged as a genre in the count's theatre as soon as 1713.  An exclusive event in the cultural history of Prague was the staging of the opera  Costanza e fortezza in 1723 for the occasion of coronation of Charles VI as a Czech king.  Probably the strong impression, which this performance left, was an important factor that contributed to an increased interest in Italian opera among the members of the Prague high society and it became their preferred genre.   It was often staged in Prague by Italian artists and it enjoyed high prestige all through the 18th century.   Because of its demanding character, opera fulfilled the criteria of representation and social event at the same time.  Apart of that, the theatre was the main and almost the only socially important institution, in which the class barriers could be lowered.   

 

The first impulse for staging Italian opera in the count's theatre came from Antonio Peruzzi who applied for a permit for this activity to viceregency and made a deal with Venetian impresario Antonio Denzio, who was then the head of a theatre group of 23 actors, about operation of a opera company.  Count Sporck let his theatres to this opera company.  The succession of events was thus rather a coincidence than an intentional founding act of the count.  Antonio Denzio started staging the opera Orlando Furioso with his company on 15th August of 1724 at the Kuks castle.  8. 1724 produkci Bioniho opery Orlando Furioso na zámku v Kuksu. Aristocratic audience was enchanted and the opera was repeated three times a week for the rest of the season.  The production was then moved into the theatre in Prague where they started staging it on 23rd October of 1725 with introduction of opera Armida abbandonata. 10. 1725 uvedením opery Armida abbandonata. From this moment on, Italian opera would have a significant influence in Prague until 1807.

 

The theatre was remodelled for these more demanding productions in the summer of 1725.  A walled main elevation with three entrances was erected, the height increased by one storey and the building enlarged probably by more that two meters.  Wooden walls were walled as well as main buttresses.  Safety was to be taken more into account and perhaps on the advice of court architect Giacomo Antonio Canevallo, main buttresses were provided with underpinning, corridors were enlarged and created safety exists.  Anti fire measures included installation of eight tuns with water and four fire engines. It seems from the preserved librettos that this venue was well equipped with the stage technology of the era that enabled the open change of the stage scenery and was furnished with a trap room.  It was probably a standard proscenium theatre, perhaps with a gallery with cheaper seats in the upper circle.  The theatre was also equipped by scenery sets in 1725, on which worked Vincenzo dal Buono, Georgius Cubach, Giovanni Paolo Gaspari  or Innocente Bellavite. So a two storey opera house, a permanent opera venue, came into existence that practically substituted the function of a municipal opera.

 

Count Sporck didn't interfere into theatre operation and that was a circumstance that significantly distinguished it from the court theatres.  Count Sporck so introduced a new type of theatre called „impresarial theatre“ to Bohemia. Theatre company functioned on a commercial principle and entrance fee should have covered the expenses.  The repertoire and daily operation was determined by the entrepreneur who was oriented to audience's demand.  The success or failure of the business rested on his connections, knowledge, horizons and abilities.  For aristocracy, renting the seats in the auditorium was often a question not only of aesthetic taste but prestige. 

 

Count Sporck was occupied more by various problems in the 1730s including a heresy trial and his interest in theatre was fading away.  While the beginnings of the activity of A. Denzio were accompanied by elation and favour of the audience,  the theatre reached its peak around 1730 and stared getting into deeper troubles.  The impresario appealed by religious authorities for the prolongation of the possibility to perform also during the Lent so he improve declining attendance.  At the same time, he was falling into more debts and ended in the New Town prison for debtors for the inability to properly repay the debt of five thousand Guldens.  A fire broke out in the theatre in March of 1733 that was put out after three hours.  The destruction of the equipment further added to the advancing decline.  After introduction of relatively successful opera „Praga nascente de Libussa a Premyslao“, Denzio dissolved his company in 1734, after his licence in Prague had expired.  Count drew his sponsorship from the theatre and the disintegration of the venue was sealed by the count's death in 1738.  The new impresario became Santo Lapis who moved into newly opened Kotzen Theatre shortly thereafter that took over the prestige position of Prague town opera for other 40 years.

 

The theatre building itself perished at latest during Prussian bombardment of Prague in 1757, but the Baroque Sporck palace, in which garden the theatre was located, has been preserved and today it serves to a science institution.  Its present day appearance is dated back to the reconstruction from the end of the 18th century.

 

Although theatre was staged in many aristocratic palaces and townsmen houses, the theatre of count Sporck left a more visible mark in the history of Czech theatre not only because it was the first separate building that served to public theatre.  The theatre was equipped by the technology of the era that enabled more demanding scenery changes.   Probably composers Gluck and Stamitz begun their career here and also Antonio Vivaldi cooperated with the theatre as well.  Apart of all that, this enterprise founded the success of Italian opera, performed by Italian artists, that would be later reproduced in the Kotzen Theatre and the Estates Theatre.

 

 

Sources and literature: 

 

BARTUŠEK, Antonín a Jiří BLÁHA. Zámecká a školní divadla v českých zemích: materiály k vývoji divadelního prostoru a výrazových prostředků. 1. vyd. České Budějovice: Společnost přátel Českého Krumlova, 2010, 288 s. ISBN 978-80-904545-0-7. Str. 172 – 173

 

PREISS, Pavel: Boje s dvouhlavou saní: František Antonín Špork a barokní kultura v Čechách. Vyd. 1. Praha: Vyšehrad, 1981. 359 s., s. 23.

 

HILMERA, Jiří. Česká divadelní architektura: Czech theatre architecture. 1. vyd. Praha: Divadelní ústav, 1999, 319 s. ISBN 80-700-8087-6. Str. 13

 

JAVORIN, Alfred. Divadla a divadelní sály v českých krajích.: 1. díl, Divadla. Praha: Umění lidu, 1949, 318 s. 8.

 

FREEMAN, Daniel E. The opera theater of Count Franz Anton von Sporck in Prague. New York: Pendragon Press, ©1992. viii, 384 s. Studies in Czech music; No. 2. ISBN 0-945193-17-3. Str. 117 – 128 Dostupné z: https://books.google.cz/books?id=F-nxW_BB3wIC&

 

NOVOTNÝ, Antonín. Staropražská theatralia: materialie k dějinám pražského divadelnictví. Praha: Čs. divadelní a literární jednat., 1955. 155, [7], 20 s. obr. příl.

 

JONÁŠOVÁ, Milada: Italská opera 18. století v Praze. První stálá operní scéna a Benátčan Antonio Alvise Denzio. In: Harmonie 2, 2008, 21–23. Dostupné z: http://www.casopisharmonie.cz/rozhovory/italska-opera-18-stoleti-v-praze-prvni-stala-operni-scena-a-benatcan-antonio-alvise-denzio.html

 

PEKAŘ, Josef: Hrabě František Antonín Špork. Český časopis historický. 29/1923, s. 217-237. Praha: Bursík a Kohout, 1895-1949. ISSN 0862-4356.

 

 

Tags: Baroque, Habsburg monarchy

 

Author: Jan Purkert

Translator: Jan Purkert

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