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Pjazza Teatru Rjal: Valletta's Enduring Landmark

Pjazza Teatru Rjal: Valletta's Enduring Landmark

Valletta’s Pjazza Teatru Rjal is known across Malta for its wealth of open-air concerts and for hosting some of the country’s most prestigious and well-known musical events. We examine the history of this remarkable building, and how it became the unique cultural edifice it is today

Walking through the main gates of Malta’s capital, various interesting and varied architectural sights draw one’s attention as the city comes into view. An arched, idiosyncratically designed structure housing shops and cafes lines the left side of the street, whilst the bold modernist parliament building on the right side hungrily demands attention, its brutalist and tactile façade standing in stark contrast — yet, somehow in keeping — with the city’s otherwise consistent aesthetic. It is the large proud Corinthian structure standing forward and to the right, however, that holds one’s gaze, it’s stunning beauty and inviting Hellenistic mystique luring tourists and locals alike to peer between its majestic pillars at the remarkable open-air performance space beyond.

Pjazza Teatru Rjal was opened in 1866, and designed by the renowned British architect Edward Middleton Barry, a leading figure in 19th century Britain who, amongst his many projects, is credited with London’s Covent Garden Opera House and adjacent glass and iron-framed Floral Hall. Built in a classical style — utilising symmetry and prominent use of pillars — and known at the time as the Royal Opera House or Royal Theatre, the building rapidly established itself as an important opera venue, not just in Malta, but across Europe. A prospective opera star’s success at Valletta’s Royal Opera House would likely lead to other engagements on the continent, preparing them for further performances at opera houses in Milan and London. Such was the respect for Valletta’s premier theatrical venue, that divas and divos from across Europe would travel to Malta’s capital in a bid to launch successful international careers.

The first of two major tragedies, however, befell the opera house in 1873, when, during rehearsals for a production the building caught fire, causing significant damage to the interior and forcing the theatre to close for refurbishment until its reopening in 1877. The opera house remained in operation until 1942, when disaster struck for a second time. On 7 April, German ‘Stuka’ dive-bombers from the Nazis’ Luftwaffe raided Valletta, destroying numerous buildings and critically damaging the city’s theatre. Photographs taken following the raid show the extent of the destruction, with only the structure’s exterior pillars and stone base partially remaining. The majority of the surviving building was demolished in the 1950s due to safety concerns, with only parts of the terrace and parts of the columns left intact — the sole remnants of a once famed European cultural landmark.

The site was left in this state for over half a century, until, in 2006, the Maltese government began engaging in discussions to redevelop the area, with initial plans proposing using the site as the basis for a new parliament building. Following numerous rejected proposals, in 2008 the Maltese government under the then-Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi revived the project, enlisting the famed Italian architect, Renzo Piano, who successfully convinced the government to instead redevelop the site into an open-air theatre, and renovate the city gates located close by.

Royal Opera House following Luftwaffe raid 1942

The renovation project was completed five years later, with the completed building inaugurated on 8 August 2013. Today, the site houses a large open-air performance space enclosed within the original structure’s remaining pillars, as well as several underground rehearsal and storage rooms. Since its reopening, Pjazza Teatru Rjal — as it is referred to today (translated to “Royal Theare Square”) — has hosted numerous local and international artists, featuring opera, dance, music and other performances. The theatre sees particular use throughout the summer months, when audiences enjoy the various shows on offer in the cooler evening air.

The remainder of this summer will see Pjazza Teatru Rjal continue to host various performances of the Malta Concert Orchestra, including an Elton John Tribute show on 5 August and James Bond-themed performance on 26 August, as well as a ‘Golden Oldies’ concert and tribute to UK rock band Queen on 2 and 16 September respectively. The theatre will also present a concert dedicated to Maltese Independence Day on 21 September, and a performance as part of the city’s Notte Bianca festival — a large-scale celebration of art and culture taking place across Valletta on 1 October. Attendees can expect to see performers from a wide variety of artistic disciplines, street events boosted by extended bar and restaurant opening hours and flocks of tourists and locals alike eager to experience the city’s premier annual cultural event. Should you be lucky enough to be in Valletta during this time, make sure you take the opportunity to enjoy the many events on offer, and remember, no visit to Malta’s capital is complete without a visit to Pjazza Teatru Rjal — the city’s stunning symbol of resilience, architectural beauty and artistic excellence.

To find out more about Pjazza Teatru Rjal, including information on upcoming performances, visit their website here.