Opera was an Italian invention but very soon in the 17th Century an Italian, Jean-Baptiste Lully, was composing for the French monarch Louis XIV full theatrical spectacles, “tragedies en musique”.
No wonder that Paris has not one, but two great Opera houses, three if you count the Opera Comique near the Boulevard des Italiens. The most famous one is the big building at the end of the Hausmannian Avénue de l‘Opéra, also called Palais Garnier, after its architect. It was conceived during Napoléon III’s reign, but not completed until after he had lost power in 1875.
Looking up towards the Chagall ceiling.
Rumor has it that when Garnier was asked by Empress Eugènie whether he was designing in Classical Roman or Greek style, he replied that it was in Napoleonian style. A very appropriate reply as this building reflects and exemplifies the worst of that excessive style. No staircase is spared a sweep, no column is unfluted and uncrowned, no moulding is uncurved, no window lacks in foliage, no opening is un-curtained, no cornice or finial un-gilded, no surface is bereft of a bas-relief, no wall lacks a sconce or a niche, nor will the niche stay empty, no urn is not overflowing, no wall-panel will remain un-treated, no nymph lacked a placement, no cherubim was denied a presence, no greek god or European composer will be without an abode. Garnier must have believed that an inch of undecorated space showed a weakness of purpose, and he was trying to exhibit the exuberance and satiety of a society that was enjoined to get rich as fast as possible and spared no vulgarity to flaunt it. The quietest part of the decor is Mark Chagall’s 1965 cupola design in the main hall, a magical, dreamy confection of blues, reds and yellows, stuck thirty years ago over the old, original painting and reportedly sagging because the old adhesives cannot hold up both.
The interior spectator space of the Opéra Garnier is really overpowering in plush velvet and gold. We attended a matinee, and I found it surprising that all those slobs in jeans and T-shirts, in denim jackets and leather were not feeling inadequate and out of place. The surroundings demanded more “sprezzatura” from the audience.
What we saw that afternoon was in stark contrast with the framework. Three short ballets, Amoveo choreographed by Benjamin Millepied, with music by Philip Glass, Répliques by Nicolas Paul, to music by György Ligeti, and Genus by Wayne McGregor, to music by Joby Talbot and Deru.
Amoveo was danced against luminous chromatic computer-generated intersecting lines and rectangles over the top four fifths of the background slowly evolving to Philip Glass’ Einstein on the Beach music supporting the exquisitely difficult sequence of pas-de-deux, trios and ensemble dances that developed against the black lower fifth.
In contrast, Répliques is a ballet closely matched with and derived from Ligeti’s music, on a black stage, with architectural sets of tulles, both in front and in back of the action, separating scenic spaces and simultaneously linking them by dancers moving in close synchronicity, like time-delayed mirror images. It is a spare and moving reflection on identity and its perceptions.
The highlight of the evening was McGregor’s ballet Genus, reflecting upon Darwin’s theories of evolution. McGregor is fascinated by how changes in the mind and one’s sense of self inform physical movement. The dancers begin as swarms of protoplasm in a sea of primal life and evolve into sea creatures through evocative choreography, to finally come on land and triumphantly become humans. Toward the end of the piece, a screen reveals a kaleidoscope of images, glimpses of humanity’s greatest intellectual discoveries.
The other Opéra is on the vast Place de la Bastille that can accommodate the towering bulk in greys and blacks. It most closely resembles a stack of silver hat-boxes, curving out towards the Colonne de Juin over a massive staircase leading up to a third floor colonnade. The facade is broken up in squares, like the tiles on the space-shuttle, the windows are contained in the tesselated pattern and the building extends backwards several blocks down the rue de Lyon, that leads to the railway station of the same name, and the Avenue Daumesnil. There are no curlicues on this edifice, no gilded finials; only a sense of powerful repose, a presence of contained energy, a mountainous rootedness.
It was built between 1984 and 1989, designed by a then unknown Uruguayan architect, Carlos Ott, and opened on July 13th 1989, to coincide with the 200th anniversary of the taking of the Bastille prison. President Mitterrand intended the new Opéra to be more welcoming to the masses, more sociable than the Palais Garnier. Its 2700 seats, 500 more than Garnier, have all unobstructed views of the stage. The common areas have all the charm of an airport lounge, with polished marble floors and large glass windows offering sweeping views of the traffic swirling around the Bastille column. A succession of long straight staircases transport the audiences to the upper realms of the edifice.
The scenic space is reputed to be the largest in Europe, and allows for the sets to be erected completely off-stage and wheeled in whenever there is a change of scenery. The acoustics have been described as less than perfect.
Garnier nowadays specialises in ballet performances, and Bastille offers a solid program of classical and modern operas, 20 productions per season.
We watched “The Barber of Séville”, Rossini’s much beloved and much performed opera buffa, in a good production that ended, to the audience’s delight, in a patriotic display of soccer enthusiasm to support and celebrate the French national team, the cast suddenly producing small French flags and the tenor donning a blue T-shirt.
The famous melodies -from other performances- Largo al factotum (), La Calunnia () and other favorites are fresh and attractive for all kinds of audiences and we had a very good time .
Unfortunately we could not get tickets for any of the shows of the Opéra Comique. But we were able, with the help of friends, to see a fascinating show of varietés, at the theater of that name on the boulevard Montmartre. Four musicians, Pierre Ganem , Laurent Vercambre , Jean-Yves Lacombe , Jean-Claude Camors, once thwarted in their lofty artistic ambitions, pooled their abundant talents to create a show of musical comedy, a kind of Marx brothers with violins and other string instruments. For thirty years now they have presented a yearly renewed season of musical slapstick, a jubilant potpourri of jazz, classical, pop-tunes, film scores and inventions set to surrealist juxtapositions and evolutions. One hundred minutes of boundless talent exhibited to an adoring and enthralled audience.
The Beginning of the End.
5 years ago