The fine baroque palace of Drottningholm is about an hour’s trip by slow vintage ferry from the center of Stockholm. Drottningholm means Queen’s Island and the first castle was built in this then-remote spot in the late 16th century by Johan III for his queen, the Polish Princess Catherine the Jagiellonian. It is a lovely setting on a gentle bay on the island which is set in a huge lake more than a hundred kilometers across, with countless other islands and maze-like stretches of narrow water, marshy nooks alternating cooperatively with gently sloping rocky shores. The first palace burnt down a century later and a larger baroque structure was erected in its place. In the middle of the 18th century Drottningholm was given to Crown Princess Ulrika Eleonora of Prussia when she married the future Swedish King, Adolf Frederick; the pair began their reign in 1751.
Ulrika was a younger sister of Frederick the Great, who, after becoming the King of Prussia in 1740, unabashedly pursued his mania for music in the grand style, inaugurating his imposing opera house in the center of Berlin only two years after ascending to the throne. Ulrika likely frequented those early Berlin performances, and when she was given Drottningholm Palace and its adjoining park lands in distant Sweden a decade later she quickly built herself a modest theatre just off the north wing of the palace. When that theatre burnt down in 1762 she had another one built in more outwardly luxurious style, but with more limited means. The interior’s classical details were done on the relative cheap: marbled walls, plaster pilasters, and corbels finished in papier mach?, their apparent heft quickly belied by the hollow sound elicited by a light knock. One has a hard time imagining the Bourbons, Romanovs, or even Ulrika’s own Hohenzollern clan making do with such economies.
At the end of the 18th century this gorgeous little theatre, which holds about three hundred people, fell into disuse, and like an antique dresser dragged up to the attic, was left virtually undisturbed until 1921, when the Swedish theatre historian Agne Beijer followed King Gustaf V (who had no idea which of the buildings on the grounds had once housed the theatre) and put the key in the main entrance’s lock. The two men literally walked into history?into a theatre undisturbed and in miraculously undamaged condition. All of its antique stage machinery and noise-makers, raked stage and wide floorboards, rows of wooden benches for the spectators, and slender area in front of the stage for a small-ish court orchestra were intact and unchanged. Even the original sets were there: the spiral waves to be brought to roiling life by a crank, the columns receding in perspectival splendor, the pastoral trees and shrubs, the boats and carriages, and flying chariots, which can bring down the diva from the heavens, where the singers have to make their way down a narrow and seemingly frail set of steps to the waiting conveyance high above the stage (the opera house is now classified as a museum, not a theatre, and therefore none of the strict Swedish health and safety standards apply). The cogs and pulleys and ropes below and above that operate all this bring to mind an 18th-century man-o-war, and indeed the theatre hands were often dock workers.
In making this fabulous relic accessible to 20th- and now 21st-century, audiences a few concessions had to be made to modernity: basic refurbishment of the wings and of the machinery and the house itself was carried out, and the hall retrofitted with electric lighting. In its present state, these amenities are very tastefully executed. The bulbs on the wooden music desks of the orchestra are hidden behind soffits. The hundreds of lights in the wings have the same strength as candles and are placed in metal reflectors as in the 18th century. The footlights are also out of sight behind wooden hoods, and are not too overbearing.
In general the wattage suggests an 18th-century ambience, with the house lights remaining fairly luminous during the performance itself, as they would have done for pre-electric audiences who might have wanted to follow along in their librettos, or at least survey the other nobles?their wigs and jewels, coiffures and decolletages.
Nonetheless, one misses the flicker of tapers. The chandeliers hold ersatz electric candles, whose slender bulbs sway back-and-forth ever so slightly, but however endearing this clever touch may be, it calls even greater attention to what is lost in the performance of these incandescent re-enactors: the flirting shimmer, the guttering bow, the courtly nod of real candle light stands in relation to the real thing, whose motions?unlike those of singers and instrumentalists?have not changed at all since the 18th century. On the ceiling above one can still see the soot from the candles of yore.
The orchestra now includes both men and women?as it wouldn’t have done in the Age of Royalty?all of them clad in wigs and livery: a fetching unisex look for the Age of Reason.
Yes, the theatre has green exit signs required by modern fire codes, and a hugely annoying electronic display for super-titles crowns the stage with garish concession to utility and comprehension.
When the devastating fire broke out in the first Drottningholm theatre during a performance in 1751, the famous French actress, Marie Baptiste, came to the front of the stage to inform the court audience, making the 18th-century theatrical gesture for fire and saying with perfect, deliberate elocution “Le feu.” The audience applauded her acting. So stylized and convincing was this attempt at urgent communication that it was taken to be part of the play. Rather than storming out of the burning theatre, the audience then followed elaborate court protocols with royalty leaving accompanied by requisite bowing and scraping by their underlings and then an orderly exit according to rank ensued, though as things heated up the women in large hoop skirts found it especially hard to move out of the theatre quickly. Unfortunately, allowed the subsequent report, a maid, two boys, and three “working men”?probably in the bowels of the theatre at their ropes and pulleys?died in the blaze.
The Drottningholm opera season is confined to the summer months and now consists of two productions: the first featuring students from the national opera school, and the second involving professional singers. The professional orchestra, in its 18th-century get-up, accompanies both shows. The eight-performance run of Mozart’s Cos? fan tutte with a mostly excellent student cast concluded this past Sunday afternoon one of those long midsummer Swedish days, when boats, buses, and cars carry enthusiasts from nearby Stockholm and from around the world to the island (now accessible by bridge), emulating, though with far greater ease, the comings and goings of the courtiers of the 18th century. Sitting in that small theatre it is easy to think one has been elevated to the aristocracy by just being there.
The ferry proceeds from the shadows of the City Hall, where the Nobel Prizes are doled out each year, out into the Knight’s Fjord through the narrow passageways of Lake M?laren, past the Victorian blocks on the bluffs, giving way to the glass-and-steel waterfront villas with their Zodiacs and sailboats moored in front, until civilization and settlement gave way to birches and oaks and diminishing signs of human habitation. It was as if the boat itself was heading back into the 18th century, as if the labyrinthine geography of waterways, islands, rocks, sloughs and slurries, made development difficult enough in this direction west of Stockholm for nature still to prevail.
As the end of the journey neared, the boat curved into the harbor with a fine view of the waterside parterre of the palace and the quaint landing dock. I could already see buses and traffic busy along the flank of park and palace. What for the 18th-century Swedish royals and their court must have been a form of communal isolation from the city had been reeled in by the automobile.
Disembarking and walking towards the palace along the pea gravel in front of a row of perfectly executed neo-classical nudes one could hear the din from the four-lane road Even in the park, with its carefully trimmed and rectilinear central French section, flanked by its more “natural” English section with requisite Gothic tower, the road trumped what would have been the gentle sound of the wind frolicking in the pollarded limes and maple trees. Drottningholm is a UNESCO world heritage site but the road harshly challenges that status.
Next week: Cos? fan tutte at Drottingholm.
David Yearsley teaches at Cornell University. He is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at email@example.com