190619 imperial theatre
Technicians put the finishing touches to the restored imperial theatre at the Fontainebleau Palace. Image Credit: AFP

Fontainebleau, France: An exquisite 19th-century French theatre outside Paris that fell into disuse for one-and-half centuries has been restored with the help of a €10 million donation from the department of culture and tourism in Abu Dhabi.

The Napoleon III theatre at Fontainebleau Palace south of Paris was built between 1853 and 1856 under the reign of the nephew of emperor Napoleon I.

It opened in 1857 but was used only a dozen times, which has helped preserve its gilded adornments, before being abandoned in 1870 after the fall of Napoleon III.

But during a state visit to France in 2007, President His Highness Shaikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, was reportedly entranced by the abandoned theatre and offered €10 million ($11.2 million, Dh41.2 million) on the spot for its restoration.

After a project that has lasted 12 years, the theatre is now being reopened.

The ceiling of the restored imperial theatre. Image Credit: AFP

An official inauguration is expected soon, hosted by French Culture Minister Franck Riester and attended by UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah Bin Zayed Al Nahyan.

Now called the Shaikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan Theatre, it is the latest example of the close relations between Paris and Abu Dhabi.

The UAE capital already hosts the Louvre Abu Dhabi, opened by His Highness Shaikh Mohammad Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, and President Emmanuel Macron in 2017, the first foreign institution to carry the name of the great Paris museum.

Cooperation is also strong in diplomacy and the military, with the French government under fire over the use of French weapons by the UAE and its main ally Saudi Arabia in the war in Yemen.


donation made by Shaikh Khalifa for the theatre’s restoration

For all its ornate beauty, the theatre has hardly ever been used for its original purpose, hosting only a dozen performances between 1857 and 1868, each attended by around 400 people.

“While it had been forgotten, the theatre was in an almost perfect state,” said the head of the Fontainebleau Palace, Jean-Francois Hebert.

“Let us not waste this jewel, and show this extraordinary place of decorative arts,” he added.

According to the palace, the theatre is “probably the last in Europe to have kept almost all its original machinery, lighting and decor.”

Having such a theatre was the desire of Napoleon III’s wife Eugenie. But after the defeat, his capture in the Franco-Prussian war in 1870 and the declaration of France’s Third Republic, the theatre fell into virtual oblivion.

Following the renovation, the theatre will mainly be a place to visit and admire, rather than for regularly holding concerts.

A sculpture adorning the imperial theatre. Image Credit: AFP

“The aim is not to give the theatre back to its first vocation” given its “very fragile structure”, said Hebert.

Short shows and recitals may be performed in exceptional cases, under the tightest security measures and fire regulations. But regular guided tours will allow visitors to discover the site, including the stage sets.

The restoration aimed to use as little new material as possible, with 80 per cent of the original material preserved.

The opulent central chandelier — three metres high and 2.5 metres wide — has been restored to its original form.