Cesky Krumlov and its unique Baroque theatre

Welcome to Spotlight. I'm Jan Velinger. This week I take you to one of the jewels of southern Bohemia, the town of Cesky Krumlov, which boasts one of the finest Baroque theatres in all of Europe. The theatre is almost something of a secret at the town's famous castle complex, although it can be seen as part of Cesky Krumlov Castle tours in the spring and summer. For lovers of the Baroque I cannot recommend it more highly: as you will hear shortly the theatre offers one of the most splendid visions of the Baroque period one could hope to see: a wide candle-lit stage, made dreamy by the low light and wondrous hazy backdrops, inviting you to enter hidden playful worlds. Join me now as I talk to Dr Pavel Slavko, who is the head of Cesky Krumlov Castle administration, and is a man who certainly loves his theatre. More photographs of Cesky Krumlov

Dr Slavko, let's discuss the theatre. Here you have an absolutely unique theatre in Central Europe at the Cesky Krumlov Castle...

"The Castle Theatre in Cesky Krumlov is unique because it is probably the most well-preserved historical site of its kind in the world. Only Drotningholm in Sweden and a few other places in France and Italy are similar in character, but none of them, which come from the 2nd half of the 18th century, is as well-preserved in terms of original equipment: machinery, decorations, stage technology, costumes, and lighting. In short, our theatre is the best preserved historical theatre."

What kind of machinery does the theatre use?

"The machinery in the theatre is unique in and of itself, and we're lucky because all of it is still functional. The machinery, and the theatre itself, is the subject of study and research. One of our aims for the future is to learn how to use this technology, and to have special presentations for students of theatre and experts, to show them how the Baroque theatre worked."

So I imagine that there are individual pieces which have individual roles, for example one piece of machinery might move something across the stage, a backdrop... How does it work?

"Basically wooden Baroque theatre technology, which is based on the use of ropes, winches, pulleys, and counter-moves, provided a central theatrical element of movement for the beholder, creating unexpected effects and surprise. Theatre technology, first of all, changes the scenic view: the audience finds itself at sea, in prison, in a palace, in a cathedral. Other forms of technology allow effects of movement: flying machines, trap doors, wave-making instruments. The third part of the technology has to do with pyrotechnics and lighting effects. A scene which takes place in Hell would require fire and smoke. Other instruments, acoustic tools imitate sounds of the period: the whistle of the wind, rain, the sound of thunder. All of these effects together require the work of 35 individuals, who have to learn how to use stage technology in complete synchronicity, as if it were a musical instrument, creating wonderful effects for the public."

So, we're just entering the section before the stage, where we have some of the machinery which is used during presentations, and Dr Slavko is going to show us how to create the effect of wind...

"I can show you how the individual functions of various tools, creating effects of wind, rain, and thunder..."

Wonderful. So it's actually a hand-cranked kind of turbine, made from wood, which creates the wind... And this?

"This is a machine for rain. And this is thunder."

The instrument which makes the sound of thunder is a large piece of wood, with cog wheels on the bottom, which rolled along the ground, creates the sound of thunder.

"Working with Baroque stage technology is not easy, and we discovered most interestingly, that gardeners, who spend a lot of time working outside, have nature under their skin and a special sensitivity for working with the instruments that create natural sounds. Historic sources confirm that theatre technical personnel in the past were often truly castle workers, like gardeners, horse trainers, coach drivers, and so on."

I'm taken away by it completely. One question - who are the people who work here? Are they all from the theatre, or are they from various backgrounds today?

"First and foremost they are our colleagues, people who work at the castle today, a whole team of us that first learnt in theory and then in practice. There is no firm in the world that would specialize in this type of theatre, so the running of the theatre at Cesky Krumlov remains up to the people who work here. The same way one works in the depository one has to learn how to use stage technology. In this one way employees here gain more meaningful ties to the workplace, and also gain pride in the fact that they are among the very few in the world who know how to use Baroque technology."

So, Dr Slavko, these are real candles lighting this space, or not?

"No, these are an electrical copy of the former system, based on candlelight. As I said earlier lighting is an incredibly important element in the Baroque environment, and we had to find a suitable electrical system which would imitate the effect of candlelight in terms of its color, its intensity, and above all, the flickering effect of the candle's flame."

But surely that's a flame I'm looking at!

"It might seem so, but it is only the special effect of a mechanical, partly electrical pulse, which is incredibly persuasive. In fact it is a special bulb which sways on its weight on a kind of pendulum, moved by undercurrents of air that move throughout the theatre, combined with a magnetic impulse, it all results in an effect which is very natural, not electronic. When things are soft and natural, with non-repetitive rhythm, they are very pleasant to the eye."

There are candles all around the theatre, and it is an absolutely perfect illusion of a natural flame...We are going underneath the stage now to look at the original technology used and... it is absolutely incredible!

"This area reminds one of almost being on a ship. Baroque stage technology is similar to the technology of sailing ships, relying on winches, rope, counter-moves, and weights, which create movements among frame systems, which end up moving stage props. These movements can either be vertical or horizontal, and in the Cesky Krumlov Castle theatre there are over 40 moving frames, which create changes in scenery on stage."

Whose masterwork was this theatre?

"We do not know who the very first architects, from the 2nd half of the 17th century, were, we simply do not have the facts. For this reason it is necessary to study archival sources not only here in the Czech Republic, but throughout Central Europe. We do know the architects from the 2nd half of the 18th century, however: in 1766 the theatre was redesigned by a group of Viennese architects, who were students of Galli Bibieni, and created decorations according to Bibieni's style. In terms of the craft work, most of it was local; in terms of the overall design inventiveness, this was imported from Vienna, which was strongly influenced by the Italian School."

"The Castle archive contains more than 2 400 librettos, operas, and ballets. The archives tell us that tens of these were performed in the Baroque theatre repertoire. From a historical perspective the repertoire from the 2nd half of the 18th century is more well known, and above all they are plays from the Commedia del l'arte, as well as some operas. Authors included: Scarlati, Salieri, Pavel Vranicky, Gluck, Gassmann: in short renowned European composers."

"We have about 600 original costumes in our collection, which is a world rarity. The oldest costumes are from the 2nd half of the 17th century, most of the pieces are from the 18th century, and the rest are from the 19th. The costumes are for famous Italian operas, opera Buffo, or Commedia del l'arte."

Are you saying that when you have a performance at the castle today, at the theatre, that these costumes are being used?

"Under no circumstances! Some costumes are so fragile that they are used only for study and inspiration for the production of copies which capture the Baroque expression: reflections, contours, color, and design."

"The restoration of the theatre has its own clear philosophy, which is focused on making the theatre fully functional as a theatre museum. This means that the theatre is restored with the utmost respect towards original elements, starting with a simple nail, to every centimeter of carpentry and painted work, in terms of decorations or the seating area. We clean and conserve but we do not reconstruct. We want to restore the theatre to its authentic state. However, this means that in the future we are not planning theatre productions for wider audiences. The theatre is very fragile, in effect it is not much more than white-washed walls, paintings, a supple wooden frame, canvas, and rope. It is only a matter of historical chance that our theatre survived since 1766."