From the outside, Malta’s Manoel Theatre is handsome, but unassuming. Step through its main entrance and into the theater though, and the 285-year-old Valletta structure is dazzling – bringing to mind a gilded jewelry box or a terraced wedding cake.
Stopping by this Maltese landmark on an overcast morning uncharacteristic for sunny Malta, Shawn and I were greeted by Josette Portelli, a veteran employee who has been with the Manoel Theatre for more than 40 years.
Upon entering, Josette’s colleagues fumbled with the complicated switchboard at the back of the seating area, trying to illuminate the theater. Soon, the space went from pitch black and mysterious, to opulent and inviting. A delicate chandelier high overhead was the stunning focal point among a sea of smaller crystal sconces, bathing the 65 or so theater boxes with mood lighting.
When the chandelier on the robin’s egg blue ceiling nearly instantly went dark again, I asked if it was possible to please turn it back on.
An employee kindly mentioned that she’d accidentally turned it on, and that in order to conserve electricity, regulations dictated that it was supposed to remain off.
The mention of energy savings prompted me to wonder how the lighting technology had evolved through the centuries, but I couldn’t let my mind wander long, as Josette had already begun regaling us with theater tidbits.
“The Manoel Theatre is one of Europe’s oldest working theaters. It was built in 1731 by the Portuguese Grand Master of the Order of St. John, and inaugurated in 1732,” she said, adding that some of the order’s knights had even performed there.
Pointing to the VIP theater boxes overlooking center stage, Josette relayed the names of a series of personalities who’d populated them in the past 200 years. Ranging from the Knights of St. John Grandmasters, to Queens Adelaide and Elizabeth, British Governor Generals, and the current Maltese Prime Minister and President, the roster of names reflected Malta’s own past: rule by the Knights of St. John, then the British, then independence in 1964.
While the tales about the theater’s glory days were insightful, I found myself even more interested in hearing about its challenging times.
“When another theater – the Royal Opera House – was built in Valletta in the 1860s, this theater lost popularity,” Josette explained. “For a time, these theater boxes were even rented out to poor people for about a penny a night.”
During World War II, the Manoel Theatre also provided emergency lodging for Maltese residents who had to endure constant bombardments.
When fire and war eventually destroyed the competing theater, the Manoel again regained prominence. Today, it’s considered to be Malta’s national theater and it regularly plays host to an annual Baroque music festival, operas, recitals, university dance performances and educational programs for children. It’s also home to the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra.
Leaving the ornate theater, we headed off to explore the lesser-visited corners of the large theater. We would play dress up with two of the theater’s 14,000 costumes, explore the cellar and dressing rooms, then take a step back in time looking at vintage programs, blueprints, and theater accessories inside the theater’s museum.
Asking Josette what she’s most enjoyed about working at the theater during the past four decades, her answer was simple. And she wore a smile as she said it.
“I have a sense of satisfaction when I see people enjoying themselves here,” she said.
The Teatru Manoel staff took us on complimentary tours.
A special thank you to the theater’s longtime employee Josette for taking the time to introduce us to this elegant Valletta landmark.
Photography & text © Tricia A. Mitchell. All Rights Reserved. The video is a creation of my husband, Shawn.