Located in the heart of the Rhône Valley, the Roman Theatre of Orange is without doubt one of the finest remnants of the Roman Empire. Exceptional evidence of Ancient Rome and part of the UNESCO World Heritage list, it is the best preserved theatre in Europe.
It owes its fame in particular to its magnificent stage wall, amazingly well-preserved and unique in the Western world. A venue for shows in Roman times, it continues in this role today, to the delight of music lovers the world over.
The exterior façade or postscaenium
“The finest wall in my kingdom”. This was how Louis XIV described the imposing façade of the theatre, 103 metres long, 1.80 metres thick and 37 metres high
The exterior façade is divided into three levels. The first comprises three doors which open out onto the stage and secondary doors which open onto the corridors or rooms that do not have access to the interior. On the second level, the wall is bare of any decoration. You can see the stone corbels which supported the roof structure and a deep groove, the remains of the anchoring for the tiles on the roof.
A blind arcade on the wall embellishes the third level. With the exception of the central arch and the arches located in line with the basilicae (towers positioned each side of the stage), each has a cavity that lets light in to the passage located inside the wall. At the top, there are two rows of 43 corbels which supported the velum, a large canvas canopy that protected spectators from the sun and the rain.
The stage wall, the frons scaenae
The stage wall was very important as it helped to properly project sound and comprised the only architectural décor in the theatre. During the performance it did not change, but some mobile items and props were installed to create the illusion of movement, space and perspective.
Its original height of 37 metres has been entirely preserved. The wall was richly decorated with slabs of multicoloured marble, statues in niches, friezes and columns. In 1931, excavations under the stage enabled the columns currently in place to be restored to their original position. Originally there were 76 of them.
The stage wall is also arranged in three levels. At the centre of the first level is the Royal Door or valva regia. Reserved for the principal actors, it was topped with a frieze decorated with centaurs, the remains of which are on display at the Museum of Orange. This door is surrounded by niches which were adorned with statues. The central niche houses the imperial statue of Augustus measuring 3.55 metres in height. This niche almost certainly contained a representation of Apollo and it is likely that the triumphant emperor was only substituted at a later date. The statue is dressed in a general’s coat, the paludamentum imperatoris, and is holding his staff. It serves as a reminder that to preserve peace throughout the Roman Empire everyone must respect its laws.
Narrower, the side doors called “hospitable” doors were used for the actors’ entrances and exits. The second and third levels, comprising columns, are purely decorative.
The terraces, the cavea
Capable of accommodating 10,000 spectators, the terraces were carved out of a hillside to make construction easier and render the final building more stable. Divided into three sections, the cavea were accessed by radial staircases. The upper section was crowned with a portico.
When it rained or was very hot, a large canvas canopy, the velum, was used to protect the audience. The system was put in place using beams fixed to the corbels at the top of the walls. The velum could therefore either cover the stage or the entire theatre.
With a diameter of 19 metres, this semicircle is the epicentre of the terraces. The legacy of Greek tradition, in tragedies it housed the choirs who often represented the voice of Destiny and provided the audience with explanations of the drama through singing and dancing. Over the centuries, the Roman theatrical repertoire developed and the voice of the choir gradually faded. The floor of the orchestra, initially beaten earth, was then covered by ornamental tiling that is now lost.
The stage is flanked by two towers called basilicae. These towers housed the rooms that served as foyers. During the performances, actors, chariots and scenery were gathered here ready for their entry on stage. The upper level or levels are thought to have been used as stores for the scenery and props.
61 metres wide and 13 metres deep, the stage consists of a floor resting on beams. It had trapdoors set in it enabling actors or machinery to appear as if by magic.
An ingenious system of cables, winches and counterweights allowed the actors and working scenery to be hidden from the audience using a curtain that was around 3 metres high.
At the edge of the orchestra and the stage was the pulpitum wall, a straight wall decorated with statues used as fountains.
The stage roof
The architecture and structure of the roof over the current stage are resolutely contemporary and the fruit of extensive scientific and archaeological research.
To shelter the stage and protect wall decorations, the Romans built a wooden structure that supported a roof. The roof and its structure were destroyed by a huge fire that ravaged the theatre in the 4th century. At the top of the stage wall, reddish stone can still be seen; the colour is the result of having been exposed to very high temperatures. Although there is nothing left of it today, it is still possible to see traces of the roof, particularly in the faces of the wing walls running alongside the edges of the stage.
In the 20th century, a desire was voiced to reconstruct a stage roof to protect the ancient façade from the assaults of the weather. The project was highly complex in technical terms because the stone, weakened by the fire, could no longer support the same kind of structure as it did in Roman times.
The plans for creating this huge 1000-m² glass canopy were finalised in 2004 and the roof was completed in 2006. Rather than attempt to roughly reconstruct the original wooden structure, the decision was taken to move more towards modern architecture. As a result, this contemporary cover of glass and steel effectively protects the stage wall, highlights it and also integrates scenery for shows. To preserve the monument, the canopy is not supported by the ancient stone, but by a huge cross beam 61.70 metres long.
This project by the head architect of Monuments Historiques, Didier Repellin, does not in any way alter the unique and extraordinary acoustics of the theatre. Indeed its slightly oblique positioning, raised upwards, ensures that sound is successfully carried, as the voices that rise from the stage are reflected out towards the terraces.