UAE gift helps French palace reopen 'forgotten theatre'

The restored imperial theatre at the Fontainebleau palace in Fontainebleau some 60 kms south-east of Paris

An exquisite 19th-century French theatre outside Paris that fell into disuse for one and half centuries has been restored with the help of a 10 million euro donation from oil-rich Abu Dhabi.

The Napoleon III theatre at Fontainebleau Palace south of Paris was built between 1853 and 1856 under the reign of the nephew of emperor Napoleon I.

It opened in 1857 but was used only a dozen times, which has helped preserve its gilded adornments, before being abandoned in 1870 after the fall of Napoleon III.

But during a state visit to France in 2007, Sheikh Khalifa, ruler of Abu Dhabi and president of the United Arab Emirates, was reportedly entranced by the abandoned theatre and offered 10 million euros ($11.2 million) on the spot for its restoration.

After a project that has lasted 12 years the theatre is now being reopened.

An official inauguration is expected soon, hosted by French Culture Minister Franck Riester and attended by UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan.

Now called the Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al-Nahyan Theatre, it is the latest example of the close relations between Paris and Abu Dhabi.

The UAE capital already hosts the Louvre Abu Dhabi, opened by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed and President Emmanuel Macron in 2017, the first foreign institution to carry the name of the great Paris museum.

Cooperation is also strong in diplomacy and the military, with the French government under fire over the use of French weapons by the UAE and its main ally Saudi Arabia in the war in Yemen.

- 'It had been forgotten' -

For all its ornate beauty, the theatre has hardly ever been used for its orginal purpose, hosting only a dozen performances between 1857 and 1868, each attended by around 400 people.

"While it had been forgotten, the theatre was in an almost perfect state," said the head of the Fontainebleau Palace, Jean-Francois Hebert.

"Let us not waste this jewel, and show this extraordinary place of decorative arts," he added.

According to the palace, the theatre is "probably the last in Europe to have kept almost all its original machinery, lighting and decor."

Having such a theatre was the desire of Napoleon III's wife Eugenie. But after the defeat, his capture in the Franco-Prussian war in 1870 and the declaration of France's Third Republic, the theatre fell into virtual oblivion.

Following the renovation, the theatre will mainly be a place to visit and admire, rather than for regularly holding concerts.

"The aim is not to give the theatre back to its first vocation" given its "very fragile structure", said Hebert.

Short shows and recitals may be performed in exceptional cases, under the tightest security measures and fire regulations. But regular guided tours will allow visitors to discover the site, including the stage sets.

The restoration aimed to use as little new material as possible, with 80 percent of the original material preserved.

The opulent central chandelier -- three metres high and 2.5 metres wide -- has been restored to its original form.