Both of the two amazing Baroque structures we saw in Bayreuth were built at the behest of the Margrave Friederich von Brandenburg-Bayreuth (1711-1763) and his wife, the Margravine Sophie Wilhelmine of Prussia (1709 – 1758). Partly due to their extravagant home-decor decisions and partly because of their mid-18th century contributions to opera in Bayreuth, their tenure had a permanent influence on the region.
The Miriam-Webster online dictionary tells us that a “margrave” is “a military governor of a German province, particularly a border province,” although this seems to be an archaic definition, or “a member of the German nobility corresponding in rank to a British marquess.” Britannica adds that it is a “ranking in modern times immediately below a duke and above a count, or earl.” I hope that helps.
When his father died, Friederich was unprepared to assume his role as margrave because his father had failed to explain to him what his responsibilities might be. Friederich’s wife, the beloved sister of Frederick the Great of Prussia, seems to have intervened to help where she could, simultaneously advancing her own agenda, and between the two of them they managed to build properties of historical interest and significance, support the arts and sciences (he established a regional university and an academy of art), and in general to enhance the reputation of the region (no doubt at the expense of thousands of less fortunate souls who could have put the money to better use).
Das Neues Schloss (The New Palace)
The old palace in Bayreuth burned down in 1753, and this provided an opportunity for Friederich and the Margravine to design and construct the building we toured on our second full day in Bayreuth. Das Neues Schloss, as it is called in German, was constructed to incorporate five existing buildings, which must have presented untold headaches to the architect. (How he executed his assignment – which he had to do on a shoestring on top of everything else because the Margravian couple had already overspent their building budgets on the Bayreuth Opera House and another residence – is engagingly described on German Wikipedia.)
The first floor of this enormous, horseshoe-shaped residence apparently features a comprehensive collection of faience (pottery decorated with coloured glass) and an exhibition entitled “The Margravine’s Bayreuth,” but we did not have an opportunity to see either of these exhibits due to the time of day. We were, however, able to stroll (almost alone) for an extended period through the second floor of the palace, where a significant portion of the baroque excesses that formed the original furnishings and decor have been either preserved or reproduced.
Some of the highlights of the residence’s long series of interconnected rooms include the rococo “Palm Room” and the “Hall of Fractured Mirrors.”
In addition to the wall designs, parqueted floors, decorated ceilings and accoutrements, I was taken with a decidedly undecorative bas relief on the main floor near the entrance to the residence, which has an interesting story attached to it. I think this is how it went:
Either “our” margrave or a previous one had a jester in his employ of whom he was very fond. The jester, a dwarf, was not popular among others in the court due to his barbed wit, and of course he was also the target of animosity because of his physical appearance. Ill-wishers (it is thought) arranged matters so that the jester’s small horse was tripped by a stone and fell, tossing the jester into the street and killing him. The margrave was so sad at this offensive act that he had a plaque made to commemorate the deed.
The back of the new palace opens onto the long park we’d walked through that morning after visiting the Richard Wagner house.
Given its size and splendour, it is difficult to absorb the fact that the Margrave and Margravine’s visions for their New Palace had to be seriously curtailed because of their previous spending excesses. It is hard to imagine what the place would have looked like if they’d had unlimited resources.
The Margravial Opera House
After leaving the palace, we wandered further through Bayreuth’s lovely Alt Stadt (Old City) before going to find dinner. We had not intended to do any more sight-seeing involving admission fees that day, but when we came upon the Margravial Opera House (Markgräfliches Opernhaus), a UNESCO site, we learned that you can’t get even a peek inside the actual facility unless you are on a tour or attending a concert. There would be one more tour that afternoon, they said, but it was in German. The attendant offered us a reduced rate since we are German-deficient, and we decided to go for it. We were very glad we did.
Described in the site’s brochure as “one of the most important remaining examples of baroque theatre architecture,” the Margravial Opera House was built in honour of the 1748 wedding of the Margravine’s daughter, Sophie, to Duke Carl Eugen of Württemburg. Wilhemine was very interested in music and she composed, performed, and played several instruments herself. She was also keen to build interest in opera in general and to let the world know how cultured things were in the Bavarian city that was her home: at one point she brought a whole Italian opera troupe to Bayreuth. In the weeks-long celebration of he opening of the opera house and Sophie’s wedding, there were Italian operas, French plays, and banquets.
The opera house in Bayreuth was designed by one of the leading opera theatre architects of the era, Giuseppe Galli Bibiena, and Bibiena’s son Carlo supervised construction and then worked at the facility for more than ten years.
To call the decor of the loge theatre “extravagant” would be to seriously understate the matter. There is no way to describe it. As our guide told us various facts in German, we sat in our seats, our heads back, staring open-mouthed at our surroundings. Every square inch of every wall and every bit of ceiling is decorated with wisps of gold and ribbons and cupids and paintings of people and every single bit of the design is probably where it is for a reason. It is a true sight to behold.
The lowered stage curtain is the illustration of an early opera set and gives some sense of what the place must look like when the lights go down.
The Margravial Opera House was extensively restored between 2013 and 2018 (mostly cleaned and brightened, as there was little actual damage) with a goal of preserving its unique beauty well into the future – not to mention its representation of an era where such excess was even thinkable.