The Municipal Theater or Théatre Municipal is located at 2, Rue de Greece, at the heart of downtown Tunis.
An increase in Italian emigration has played a significant role in the development of European theater in Tunisia. The number of Sicilian folk theatre performances and puppet shows began to increase in Tunisia in 1870, when a significant number of Italian citizens (many of whom were from Sicily) arrived.
With a population of 40,000 in 1880, Tunis was comprised primarily of Italians (4,000) and French citizens (a few hundred). Following 1881 and the establishment of the French protectorate, the proliferation of theaters in the city remained a phenomenon primarily associated with the Italian community.
A Jewish merchant named David Cohen-Tanugi, who had spent considerable time traveling throughout Europe and thus developed a particular interest in the dramatic arts, commissioned the construction of the first Italian-style theaters in 1875 by the Italian architect Giacomo Di Castelnuovo.
Initially known as the Théatre Nouveau but more commonly referred to as the Théatre Cohen, the venue boasted the largest seating capacity in Tunis at the time, accommodating 400 individuals. With a performance of the opera Ruy Blas by composer Benjamin Godard, the theater was inaugurated in December 1875. It followed suit to stage Faust by Gounod and La Favorita by Donizetti.
Upon land donated to the Italian community, the Gran Teatro was completed in 1876. Until the close of the century, the structure remained operational.
Additionally, French operas began to gain popularity rapidly following the establishment of the French protectorate. Boulevard Jules Ferry, the principal thoroughfare for the European community in Tunis, witnessed the opening of several new theaters in the 1880s, including the Théatre Francais, the Arena, and the Politeama.
Following a name change to Folies Bergères in 1892, the Théatre Nouveau was renamed La Scala in 1890. It was demolished in 1905, having been transformed into a French restaurant in 1893.
A Greek entrepreneur and an Italian firm constructed and operated the Teatro Paradiso on Avenue de France, which commenced operations in 1885. Homere Cypriani, the renowned scenic designer, and Conte, his primary machinist, “attained unparalleled scenic effects on the Tunis stage during a run of Verdi operas and Gounod’s Faust,” which began each five-month season as customary.
Reconstructed and reopened as the Théatre Francais and subsequently the Théatre Douchet, the Teatro Paradiso was devastated by fire in 1889. Undoubtedly, the establishment of a substantial municipal theater was being felt by a considerable portion of the European populace, and its design was influenced by the theater’s immense popularity.
Despite the adage that Tunis is a mildly monotonous destination due to its abysmal weather, picturesque Arab quarters, and breathtaking views of the surrounding hills on all three sides, it has yet to establish itself as a popular winter getaway. This is precisely because Tunis lacks all the distractions that are present in major metropolitan areas. Lacking a well-appointed theater and a picturesque environs akin to those found in the Tuileries or Luxembourg, there is no public garden.
Nevertheless, there is considerable enthusiasm surrounding the development of Tunisian attractions that will entice international visitors to spend the winter months in the city. The feasibility of developing a municipal theatre and a casino modeled after those found in European resorts is currently under investigation. We hold the firm conviction that the establishment of these entertainment venues should proceed without further postponement, given the reduced challenges they have encountered thus far. ²
On November 20, 1902, the Théatre Municipal, which was constructed in the Art Nouveau style and was financed by the city of Tunis and designed by the French architect Jean-Émile Resplandy, was formally opened.
Starting on January 4, 1912, a newly constructed auditorium featuring 1,350 seats spanning four levels replaced the theater, which had a maximum capacity of 856 people. The dismantled structure was reconstructed and expanded in 1909. In 2001, the theater underwent an extensive renovation.³
Prior to its reopening in April 2017, the theater was closed in 2015 for additional maintenance.⁵
A commercial center was slated to be constructed in close proximity to the Théatre Municipal in the 1980s, putting the structure at risk of demolition. The building’s destruction was averted as a result of the unified opposition of the entire populace of Tunis, which vehemently opposed the proposal.
Presently, some of the most significant national cultural events, including the Carthage Theatre Days and the Medina Festival, which is typically observed during Ramadan, take place in the theater. Additionally, the Tunisian Symphony Orchestra calls the theater home.
The Théatre Municipal, an exceptional example of surviving colonial architecture in Tunis, has long served as the focal point of the city’s cultural scene, providing an extensive array of cultural events, including ballet, dance, and traditional music performances, as well as literary gatherings.
The predominant method of performing operatic repertoire pieces is through concerts or semi-staged presentations. Recent years have witnessed the absence of full-scale opera productions. Assessing the theater’s recent seasons is further complicated by the absence of its official website.
Even an account that does not appear to be the theater’s official one published the most recent information regarding its performances on social media in 2015 (Facebook being the primary online platform utilized by the majority of Tunisian cultural institutions for communication purposes).
Hence, it is highly likely that the theater’s 2016 closure significantly impacted the operation of its complete organizational framework, which recommenced operations only in 2017. As the theater’s new position on the Tunisian cultural scene becomes more apparent, the progression of events in the coming months will be a fascinating subject to monitor.
Article originally published on Medium by Paolo Petrocelli
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