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The Chinese Theatre

To the left of the entrance to the Alexander Park, in one of the squares of the New Garden, stands the Chinese Theatre, or Masonry Opera, as it was known in Catherine II’s time. Originally it was proposed to build an open-air theatre on this site with turf benches for seating.

The plan for the theatre, which was begun in 1778, was drawn up by the architect Antonio Rinaldi, but construction was supervised by Ilya Neyelov, who made some alterations to the original concept. The building was entirely European in appearance. The theatre’s architectural forms and external decoration were relatively simple: white walls embellished with pilasters, a broad cornice and narrow door and window architraves. The cornice, probably destroyed during a nineteenth-century refurbishment, was multicoloured and had an elaborate design. Only the tall roof with corners upturned in a “Chinese” manner betrayed the architect’s efforts to create an exotic edifice.

The interior decoration of the Chinese Theatre was by contrast opulent. The central box, the proscenium arch and the ceiling painting were all adorned by figures of Chinese people, dragons, shields bearing signs of the zodiac and other elements of oriental décor. The interior was enlivened by little bells, beads and pendants turned from wood and brightly painted, silvered and gilded. The decorations for the boxes were made of painted cardboard mounted with shiny foil. The central imperial box and the two side ones intended for grand dukes and duchesses contained genuine works of Chinese art: decorative lacquer panels, porcelain and furniture. In 1779 the eminent decorative artist Joseph Christ painted the orange silk curtain with scenes and landscapes “in the Chinese taste”. 

The first performance was given in the Chinese Theatre on 13 June 1779. The composer Giovanni Paisiello presented his opera Demetrios for Catherine II.

In 1908–09, under the direction of the court architect Silvio Dagnini, the building was completely refurbished. The eighteenth-century stage was re-equipped with the latest technology to facilitate large opera and ballet productions. An improved heating system made it possible to use the summer theatre throughout the year. In 1914, with the outbreak of the First World War, the Chinese Theatre ceased working for a long time. Performances were resumed only in the summer of 1930.

On 15 September 1941, when the town of Pushkin was being shelled, this unique edifice was almost completely burnt out.

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The Chinese Theatre
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