Putting Malta in the Limelight: Valletta’s Manoel Theatre

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.

“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.”

– Josette Portelli

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.

Teatru Manoel Valletta Malta
The theater’s exterior is attractive, but not any more ornate than its limestone neighbors. Just to the left of its main entrance are two staples of Maltese architecture: enclosed balconies (galleriji) and a religious statue tucked into a niche.
Teatru Manoel Theater Building Valletta Malta
Detail of the theater’s main entrance.
Manoel Theatre Valletta Malta
In 1731, the Grand Master of the Knights of Malta, António Manoel de Vilhena, commissioned and funded the theater’s construction. Manoel’s aim was to entertain the young knights and provide “honest entertainment” for citizens. This motto still greets theater-goers today, etched into this flourish over the main entrance: ad honestam populi oblectationem.
Teatru Manoel Theater Valletta Ceiling
Viennese chandeliers and sconces illuminate the ceiling.
Manoel Theatre Crystal Sconce

Teatru Manoel Theater Architecture Valletta Malta
The theater boxes landscape scenes depict Palermo (on the nearby island of Sicily). They were painted by Angelo Ercolani.
Teatru Manoel Theatre Boxes Valletta Malta
The theater boasts about 67 semi-private theater boxes and has a capacity of about 600. There were once stone benches inside, but they were later changed to wood to improve acoustics.
Teatru Manoel Theatre Box Valletta Malta
The Manoel Theatre’s season runs from October to May, closing in the summer months not only for maintenance, but also because of Malta’s sweltering temperatures.
Manoel Theatre Box Mirror Valletta Malta
A close-up of a weathered vanity mirror adorning the wall of one of the Manoel Theater’s theater boxes. As our guide, Josette, explained, “Back in the day, it was more important (for theater-goers) to be seen than to see.” Reflecting in this mirror, you can see a trio of theater boxes across the way.
Teatru Manoel Details

Manoel Theatre Valletta Wardrobe Costomes
Going behind the scenes we got to peek at some of the theater’s 14,000-piece wardrobe (left) as well as a costume designer’s sketches (right).
Teatru Manoel Theater Costumes

Costumes Manoel Theatre
Playing dress-up.
Manoel Theatre Costumes For Hire Rent Valletta

Teatru Manoel Museum Blueprints Valletta
The theater’s museum includes architectural sketches, colorful set design sketches, well-worn costumes, and my favorite – the antique sound-effect machines (see below).
Theatre 19th Century Wind Maker Teatru Manoel Valletta Malta
A sound machine dating back to the 19th century. (Turn the handle and the rolled fabric is pressed against the wood, creating a sound that mimics the windiest days on the island.)
Theatre 19th Century Rain Maker Teatru Manoel Museum Valletta Malta
Our guide, Josette, creates a rain-making effect (left) and a vintage costume (right).
Teatru Manoel Museum Costumes

Teatru Manoel Museum Costumes Display Valletta Malta

Manoel Theatre Valletta Malta

Video of this Experience:

Where in the World?

Planning Pointers:

  • The Manoel Theatre is located about two blocks from Valletta’s main thoroughfare, Republic Street. (It’s on Old Theatre Street, between Old Bakery and Old Mint Streets.) Street signs are generally in Maltese and in English, and Valletta’s diminutive nature and grid-like layout make it relatively easy to navigate.
  • Visit the Manoel Theatre website for tour information, and tickets for performances.
  • I was interested to read that the theater also has apartments, which are sometimes available for short stays. We didn’t get to peek at the flats in person, but I thought they might offer a fun accommodation option for visitors wishing to stay in Valletta. (We live just a few minutes away, and love being in the center of it all.)
  • Need more trip-planning inspiration? This link contains an index of all my posts from Malta.

Disclosure & Thanks:

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.

Published by Tricia A. Mitchell

Tricia A. Mitchell is a freelance writer and photographer. Born in Europe but raised in the United States, she has lived in Valletta, Malta; Heidelberg, Germany; and Split, Croatia. An avid globetrotter who has visited more than 65 countries, she has a penchant for off-season travel. Tricia has learned that travel’s greatest gift is not sightseeing, rather it is the interactions with people. Some of her most memorable experiences have been sharing a bottle of champagne with distant French cousins in Lorraine, learning how to milk goats in a sleepy Bulgarian village, and ringing in the Vietnamese New Year with a Hanoi family. She welcomes any opportunity to practice French and German, and she loves delving into a place’s history and artisanal food scene. A former education administrator and training specialist, Tricia has a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and a master’s degree in international relations. She and her husband, Shawn, married in the ruins of a snowy German castle. They’ve been known to escape winter by basing themselves in coastal Croatia or Southeast Asia. Her writing has appeared in Fodor’s Travel, Frommer’s, and International Living.

21 thoughts on “Putting Malta in the Limelight: Valletta’s Manoel Theatre

  1. Oh how do I love Malta let me count the ways. This is amazing! I’d love to go to that theatre. Better get on organizing another trip there.

    1. Melissa, it’s always fun having more excuses to return to a favorite place, isn’t it? We’re lucky to be living in Valletta, but if we weren’t already here, I think it’s neat that the Manoel has apartments to rent. Wishing you a swift return to this fascinating little spot in the Mediterranean.

    1. Virginia, we are lucky to have this elegant venue just a few blocks away from us, at least for a few more months. I regret that we missed the true dress-up experience earlier this year, when the theater hosted a Baroque festival ball. Given your love of style, I can imagine you being in your element in the wardrobe room there! It’s always lovely to hear from you; hope you’ve had a splendid weekend.

    1. Thank you – I’m glad you liked this glimpse of Malta’s beautiful theater, Vera. We’re certainly enjoying having so much Old World beauty around us! Did you attend any performances while living in Italy?

    1. Darlene, surprisingly, it’s pretty easy to walk right past the Manoel and not have any idea that it’s so ornate inside! I hear that’s the case with much of Valletta, and that there are extraordinary gardens and courtyards tucked away behind these substantial walls too.

  2. Tricia, I remember this beautiful theater, and your photos certainly do it justice. It’s wonderful to see how you and Shawn have embraced Malta – and Malta has embraced you. It’s such a fascinating place.

    BTW, you may have noticed that things have been quiet at Gallivance. Our travels have been (temporarily) suspended because I blew out my knee and recently had to have total knee replacement surgery. Not fun, but I’m working hard on recovery. We haven’t forgotten about our friends and want things to get back to normal. James and I are looking forward to catching up with you and finding out what you’ve been up to. In the meantime, thanks for continuing to follow along.

    All the best, Terri

    1. Hi Terri, did you and James go to a concert at the Manoel Theatre? I have it on our Must Experience in Malta list to get tickets for a performance, and your lovely message reminds me to do so before the theater is closed for the season!

      I am so sorry to hear about your knee injury, but given your zest for life, I think you’ll be on the mend soon. In the meantime, I am sending positive thoughts your way for a swift recovery, Terri. I suspect James is taking good care of you and that you’re also using the time to plan your next adventure?

  3. I was reading and really getting into all of your more “outdoorsy posts” and I saw this one and your header image just captured me!!! How gorgeous!! I love finding other travel bloggers who share my interest in detail.

    1. Hi Brooke, those theater boxes are pretty dazzling, aren’t they? One of these years, I’d like to attend the Baroque Festival Ball there. The theater rents out the costumes and all. Having peeked at just one rack of the immense wardrobe room, I can imagine it would be fun photographing the details of all those intricate costumes. Thanks for stopping by, and here’s hoping you’re having a lovely weekend.

    1. Martin, my only regret is not having made it there for a performance, but that’s a good excuse to return! Are you contemplating a visit to Malta? With Valletta being the 2018 Capital of Culture, it seems like the island nation is getting a good deal of attention now.

      Thanks for your kind words!

      1. Hi Tricia. I have been trying to get to Malta for years. (My ex wife’s father is from Valletta). Think I would prefer to get there before next year, when its a little quieter perhaps. So maybe…soon. Yes, I’m sure a performance in that auditorium would be sublime. I was director at the Everyman in Cheltenham for a number of years and working in a Matcham theatre was a delight.

      2. Martin, with your theatrical ties and Valletta connection, it sounds like you’re destined to attend a performance at the Manoel Theatre then! As I recall, they shutter up when the weather gets too hot. Perhaps if you peruse their schedule you’ll find a must-see production? http://www.teatrumanoel.com.mt/

        I just googled the Everyman – what an absolutely stunning interior! Do you know approximately how old it is?

      3. Hi Tricia. Yes, I think it is my destiny. One day I am sure I will get to the Manoel. Thank you for the schedule link. It was a pleasure working in Matcham’s theatre, it is indeed very beautiful. It was opened at the end of the 19th century. It is thought to have its very own ghost too, although I never made its acquaintance during my time there! I hope your Friday is good.

      4. Here’s hoping it’s a happy ghost, and that you have a wonderful time once you head to Malta. We spent one year living in Valletta, and it was wonderful being surrounded by so much history and formidable fortifications. I first visited the island a decade before moving there, and was amazed to witness the renaissance Valletta is now having.

        Wishing you a wonderful weekend ahead too!

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