Operas in Wiesbaden

Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland and the Isles, was executed in 1587 at Castle Fotheringhay in Northamptonshire on orders of her cousin, Queen Elisabeth the First of England.

In real life the two queens never met. But they do meet sometimes on the opera stage, in the second act of the opera Maria Stuarda, by Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848). Of course they speak or rather sing in Italian, and before long Mary (Maria) loses patience and calls Elisabeth (Elisabetta) a “vil bastarda” — which is a highly undiplomatic thing to say and destroys whatever slight chance she might have had of surviving the encounter.

This opera is based loosely on the classic German play Maria Stuart by the dramatist, poet and historian Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805). You can see Schiller’s statue here in Wiesbaden if you go around to the back of the theater. The statue was first set up here in 1905, on the occasion of the one hundredth anniversary of Schiller’s death.

The State Theater in Wiesbaden

Another Schiller-based opera that I have seen twice in Wiesbaden was the five-act Italian version of Don Carlos, by Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901).

Schiller’s drama and Verdi’s opera are set in Spain in the year 1560. Don Carlos is the son of King Philipp II, who is married to a young French princess, Elisabeth of Valois. Originally Elisabeth was supposed to marry Don Carlos, who was about her age, but then for reasons of state she had to marry his father the king. In the play and the opera (but not in real life) Elisabeth and Carlos knew and loved each other. Carlos has a friend, the idealistic and freedom-loving Marquis of Posa, who sacrifices himself in a vain attempt to save his friend.

Over the years Verdi wrote seven different versions of this powerful opera, some in French and some in Italian. I have seen the five-act French version in Strasbourg and a five-act Italian version in Frankfurt am Main, also a four-act Italian version in Braunschweig, Dresden and Geneva, as well as a German re-translation in Dessau.

Balconies in the Wiesbaden State Theater

Several years ago I missed a unique opportunity. In Frankfurt I went to an afternoon performance of Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman) by Richard Wagner, and realized too late that I could have taken the train to Wiesbaden and seen a different production of the same opera that same evening. (It’s Wagner’s shortest opera, and still has a lot of Bellini influence that he later rejected, so seeing it twice in one day would have been no problem.)

I did see that Wiesbaden production eventually. Unfortunately it was sold out and I was sitting off to the side so I didn’t get a complete view of the stage — there was a bright red sailing ship on a black background or visa-versa — but that was the evening they had Simon Estes in as a guest singer, the only time I’ve ever heard him live.

In the Wiesbaden State Theater

Unlike the nearby opera houses in Mainz, Darmstadt and Frankfurt, all of which were built in the second half of the 20th century, the State Theater in Wiesbaden looks like something a vain 19th century emperor would have built in his favorite spa, so he wouldn’t have to do without his accustomed regal ambiance while he was here taking the waters.

Well, that’s exactly what it is. The prolific Vienna architects Fellner and Helmer designed and built this opera house to the specifications of the German Emperor Wilhelm II, who also paid for the building. (No wonder the people of Wiesbaden had a weakness for emperors.)

The main hall of the State Theater still (or rather again) has the same form and style of decoration as it did when it was built in the 1890s. The stage machinery has of course been modernized repeatedly. Another concession to modernism is the video monitor, mounted on the first balcony, which enables the singers to see the conductor from all parts of the stage.

Seating in the Wiesbaden State Theater

The main hall of the State Theater (Großes Haus) has 1041 seats. The ones down front look quite comfortable, but up where I sit they are a bit small and close together, as though they were still their original size from 1894. When you have to sit still during a four- or five-hour opera you begin to realize that people really were somewhat smaller in the 19th century than they are today.

Another typical thing about 19th century opera houses like this one is the existence of six segregated staircases, three on each side of the building. On the right and left side there is a broad carpeted staircase leading up to the first balcony, a more modest non-carpeted staircase leading up to the second balcony and a narrow claustrophobic staircase leading up to the third. The point of this evidently was to ensure that the elegant patrons in the expensive seats were spared the sight and the stench of the plebs who could only afford to sit up top.

There are also segregated refreshment stands on the different levels, presumably for the same reason. This social stratification still exists, just because that is the way the building was built, but if you go exploring and don’t mind opening unmarked doors you will soon find the secret passageways that lead from one stratum to another.

When booking seats, try not to sit too far off to the side, because there are numerous seats in the balconies (Ränge) that do not allow a full view of the stage.

In addition to this “Large House”, there is also a “Small House” with 328 seats and a “Studio” with 89 seats.

Ceiling of the Wiesbaden State Theater

In the years 1975 – 1978 the ceiling of the main hall was restored to its original form, so now the paintings and ornamentation are now just as they were when the hall was originally inaugurated in 1894.

Foyer of the Wiesbaden State Theater

This ornate foyer was completed in 1902, eight years after the theater itself was inaugurated. This is where refreshments are available in the intermissions. There are also smaller refreshment counters on the levels of the second and third balconies.

Ornamentation in the Foyer

The foyer is the part of the theater building that has the most elaborate ornamentation. On the left side of the second balcony in the main hall there are a few steps going up to an unmarked door. This provides access to the upper level of the foyer, which is where I went to take this picture.

My photos in this post are from 2004. I revised the text in 2018.

See also: Opera houses in Germany.

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