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The Tbilisi Opera House – the Russian Connection


Photo of ornate Moorish-style theater in Tblisi.
The Moorish Theater in Tblisi

When billionaire businessman and member of the ruling coalition, Bidzina Ivanishvili paid for the restoration of the Moorish theater in Tbilisi in 2016, he was accused of pandering to public opinion. If that was his intention, he wasn’t the first to use the beloved opera house to gain political popularity. Since its inception, the Tbilisi opera house has played a political role in a country where singing is at the heart of culture. Georgian polyphonic singing* predates Christianity and is an intangible UNESCO world heritage. Singing contests were—and are—a prominent feature of Georgian life.



Russia Steps In


The Russians paid for the original opera house –then known as Caravanserai Theatre—as contrition for their betrayal of Georgia. In the late 18th century, after signing a treaty with Catherine the Great to defend Georgia, the Georgian ruler—then under Persian suzerainty—withheld allegiance to the Shah. But when the Shah attacked Georgia to punish the runaway province, the Russians stood by as the Iranians sacked Tbilisi, killed its residents, and enslaved over 15,000 young men and women. A few years later, the Russians occupied Georgia, triggering resentment and rebellion in that country.


Fifty years later, in the mid-19th century, Count Mikhail Vorontsov, the viceroy of Transcaucasia, funded several cultural initiatives, including the opera, in 1847. His aim ostensibly was to promote Georgian music. In reality, he wanted to integrate the Georgian aristocracy into the Imperial Russian social life. He hired a Parisian firm to decorate the interior of the 800-seat Tiflis Imperial Theater—as the Tbilisi opera house came to be known—with gold and silver embroidered velvet and silk. A massive chandelier was imported from Marseille. Alexandre Dumas, who visited Tbilisi in 1858, lauded the theater: “I can say without hesitation that I, in my entire life, have never seen such a delightful hall..."


Only Tbilisi high society attended the masked ball marking the grand opening of the opera house. The inauguration performance in October of 1851 was Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor performed by an Italian troupe conducted by Francisco Barbieri. After the show, the performers joined the public in a traditional Georgian feast onboard boats on the river Kura.


For the next half a century, Italian and Russian operas and Russian Ballet dominated the programing in the opera. During that time foreign dignitaries—including a young Tolstoy—patronized the Tbilisi opera. The Georgian aristocracy demonstrated their resentment of the Russian occupation by embracing Verdi’s patriotic music. Teresa Stolz, who became Verdi’s favorite soprano, made her operatic debut here in 1857.


​GEORGIAN POLYPHONY

​The ancient Georgian tradition of polyphonic singing, considered by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, flourishes today. Listen to examples at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3M7YAfc1-BU and https://en.dimashnews.com/georgian-traditional-polyphonic-music/



Old black and white image of a fire-gutted structure.
Following the devastating fire of 1874

Fire and Reconstruction


On 11 October 1874, the theater burnt before a performance of Bellini's Norma. The musical library, costumes, scenery, props, and paintings were all destroyed. People were outraged when it was revealed that the firefighters—housed across the street—did not respond in a timely manner. When they showed up, they forgot to bring ladders. Speculations about the involvement of top administrators as well as Georgian nationalists ran rampant. Eventually Kazarov, a merchant, was tried and sentenced to 9 years in Siberia for setting the fire.


Plans to rebuild the theater, designed by Saint Petersburg architect of German origin Viktor Schröter, were delayed for many years. Administrative and political considerations further postponed—or halted—the construction of the new theater. Not having an opera house, however, did not stop operatic production in Tbilisi. The Russian composer Ipolitov-Ivanov became the director of a "Summer Theater" and continued regular seasons. Pyotr Tchaikovsky and the singer Feodor Chaliapin both performed at the Georgian capital during this time.


Finally in November of 1896, the Moorish style opera house opened with Glinka’s A Life for the Tzar. At the turn of the 20th century the opera house hosted avant-garde artists such as Isadora Duncan and Sofia Fedorova. Mikhail Fokin staged his first innovative ballets here, before joining Diaghilev in Paris and attaining worldwide fame.

Under the soviet regime, Tbilisi was the country’s leading cultural center after Moscow and Saint Petersburg. In 1937 the Opera theatre was named after the Georgian classicist and the composer, Zakaria Paliashvili. Many artists who began their careers here have achieved global fame, including dancer Maia Makhateli.


In 1973 amidst a wave of arson and bombings in response to then-President Eduard Shevardnadze's anti-corruption campaign, the opera house was set ablaze a second time. Seven people, accused of arson, were arrested. Six of them confessed to accepting money from Vakhtang Chabukiani, a former director, to burn the opera house.All six repudiated their confession during a secret trial, claiming their confessions were obtained under torture. Despite finding no other evidence, all seven were convicted and imprisoned. Chabukiani was never charged and left Georgia shortly afterwards. Many intellectuals in Georgia contend that the trial was a payback for his refusal to choreograph a ballet to music composed by Georgia's Minister of Culture, Otar V. Taktakishvili.



Today’s Opera house


Today, alternating yellow and reddish bands adorn the façade of the imposing Tbilisi Opera House. A two-story entrance porch topped with turrets features stucco ornamentation. Geometric patterns, muqarnas plasterwork, and pointed arches give an oriental flare to the outside of the opera house. The inside of the 1065-seat hall, however, is typical of European opera houses adorned with ample velvet, painting, and mirror work. The fan-shaped seating layout on five tiers provides good sightlines to the rectangular stage. Stucco decorations help with the acoustics.


The small garden to the side of the opera house is the final resting place of composer Zacharia Paliashvili and singers Vano Sarajishvili and Zurab Anjaparidze.



The Birth of Georgian Opera


Vintage photo of Balanchivadze, in a suit and hat, with a beard and goatee.
Meliton Balanchivadze

Meliton Balanchivadze—father of George Balanchine and composer Andria Balanchivadze—composed Tamar the Wily, considered the first Georgian opera, in 1897. The music, later renamed as Darejan the Wily, was first performed in front of a small audience in St. Petersburg. Its first full production at the Tbilisi Opera Theatre was delayed to the 1925-1926 season.


The Georgian operas in Tbilisi flourished in the brief period of independence in Georgia between the collapse of the Russian Empire in 1917 and the Bolshevik takeover in 1920. The first fully staged Georgian opera, Christine by Revaz Gogniashvili, was presented in June of 1918. Other operas include Dimitry Arakishvili’s Legend of Shota Rustavel (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9t0seDz95mA) and Victor Dolidze’s Keto and Kote (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dnPPYfoxbWs) in 1919.


Young aristocratic-looking man with waxed mustache in suit.
Zakaria Paliashvili

Zakaria Paliashvili’s Abesalom da Eteri was the first Georgian-language opera to garner widespread recognition. Partly staged in 1913, it debuted in the Tbilisi Opera Theatre in February 1919. Petre Mirianashvili wrote the libretto based on a Georgian folk poem, Eteriani. The music is an eclectic fusion of folk songs and traditional 19th century Romantic classical themes. Today, Abesalom da Eteri is a national treasure. It opens the season at the renamed Georgian National Opera Theater and parts of it are adapted as the Georgian National Anthem.


Andria Balanchivadze composed the first Georgian classic ballet Mzechabuki (Heart of the mountains), in 1936.



World-Renowned Georgian Opera Singers



Dark-haired, in a red dress and pearls.
Anita Rachvelishvili

The great mezzo-soprano, Anita Rachvelishvili (left), is not the only singer of Georgian origin who dominates the stage at major opera houses. Two other Georgian singers—Sofia Mchedishvili, and Nino Machaidze—joined her in the production of Carmen at La Scala in Milan in 2015. The baritone Lado Ataneli is considered one of the finest interpreters of Verdi’s and Puccini’s arias. The soprano Madina Karbeli and tenor Mikheil Sheshaberidze delight opera lovers everywhere.


The great mezzo-soprano, Anita Rachvelishvili (left), is not the only singer of Georgian origin who dominates the stage at major opera houses. Two other Georgian singers—Sofia Mchedishvili, and Nino Machaidze—joined her in the production of Carmen at La Scala in Milan in 2015. The baritone Lado Ataneli is considered one of the finest interpreters of Verdi’s and Puccini’s arias. The soprano Madina Karbeli and tenor Mikheil Sheshaberidze delight opera lovers everywhere.



Lado Ataneli


Sofia Mchedishvili

Nino Machaidze





Mikheil Sheshaberidze



Madina Karbeli

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