During the times of the Knights, plays and theatrical productions were generally held in the great halls of the auberges. Valletta was in need of a court theatre. This problem was finally solved when Grand Master Antonio Manoel de Vilhena acquired a site from the Priory of Navarre for the sum of 2,186 scudi.
It was modelled after the plan of the contemporary Palermo theatre ‘for the honest recreation of the people’. The design is attributed to Romano Carapecchia. Work on the theatre started immediately after the signing of the deed of purchase and it was completed in the short period of ten months. The theatre was given a very simple facade. It had special accommodation for the actors who were generally brought over from foreign countries at the expense of the impresario.
The theatre opened its doors on 19 January, 1732, with a performance of Merope by Maffei. Two well known impresarios were Melchiorre Prevost Lanarelli and Giovanni Le Brun. From 1768 to 1770 the impresario was a woman, Natalia Farrugia. During the times of the Knights, the Grand Master appointed a person who used to supervise the management and the theatrical productions.
In 1783 the theatre underwent some modifications and redecoration. Natale Marini sent Comm. Scozzini, one of the commissioners of the theatre, a plan and a model of the interior. This included the stage too, as well as scenery and illumination. When the model was displayed before the Inquisitor and many senior members of the Order (Grand Crosses) and Knights, their comments were very positive, so much so that the commissioners decided to add a further sum of money as bonus to the 49 scudi requested by Marini. The top balcony and the boxes which are housed near the stage were added during the early nineteenth century.
This theatre includes a museum. It houses a collection of early librettos, a portrait of the theatre founder and some machines used for theatrical productions. One of the attractions of this museum is a rotating display of stage costumes drawn from the theatre’s large collection. A case in point is a scarlet costume and accessories which were used for Verdi’s opera Rigoletto. Other beautiful costumes include a purple dress used for Giordano’s opera Fedora and a girl’s costume used during a nineteenth century pantomime Alice in Wonderland. Both the museum and the theatre are open to the public.