With seats for 570 spectators in its main auditorium, the Athénée Théâtre Louis-Jouvet is the smallest lyric theater in Paris. The nearby Garnier Opera seats three times as many people, and the Bastille Opera seats well over four times as many.
Though the entrance to the Athénée is tucked away in an inconspicuous impasse aka cul-de-sac, it is actually quite centrally located, just 240 meters (as the crow flies, assuming Parisian crows fly in a straight line) from the Garnier Opera.
Like most Parisian ‘squares’, the square in front of the Athénée is not square at all, but round, or rather more or less octagonal. It is called Le square de l’Opéra Louis Jouvet and features a statue of Pegasus, the mythical flying horse of ancient Greek mythology. The statue is by the French sculptor Alexandre Falguière (1831-1900) and is called “The poet straddling Pegasus”.
Two things surprised me about this statue: first that the horse has maintained its balance and hasn’t fallen down for the past 122 years (since 1897), despite only standing on its two hind legs, with its two front legs dangling in the air; and second that the wings are so small. Pegasus is often shown with much larger wings, as if that would make him fly better.
The Athénée Théâtre Louis-Jouvet was closed for renovation during the entire 2015-2016 season. This was necessary to bring the building up to modern safety standards, install new stage equipment, improve wheelchair accessibility, install a new ventilation system and finally to clean and re-paint everything. But they promised that after renovation the theatre would still have the same appearance and atmosphere as when it opened in the year 1896.
Both the theatre itself and the square it is on are now named after Louis Jouvet (1887-1951), who was the director of this theatre for seventeen years until he died in the theatre building at age 63. I have mentioned Louis Jouvet in several other posts, first because as a young actor he was an ensemble member of the then-new Théâtre du Vieux-Colombier, and also because he later became famous as a film star, appearing in over thirty French films including Marcel Carné’s Hôtel du Nord from the year 1938. In this film, Jouvet and the actress Arletty were playing what were supposed to be supporting roles, but they stole the show particularly with their scene Atmosphère, atmosphère on the Canal Saint-Martin in Paris.
The opera I saw in 2019 at the Athénée Théâtre Louis-Jouvet was Into the little hill by Sir George Benjamin (the “Sir” being an addition from the year 2017, when I was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II for his services to music), to a libretto by the playwright Martin Crimp.
The opera is a modernized version of the old German folk tale Der Rattenfänger von Hameln (literally ‘The rat catcher of Hameln’) which is known in English as The Pied Piper of Hamelin. I knew this story as a child, but what surprises me in retrospect is that I never bothered to ask the meaning of the word pied, though I had no clue what it meant. This state of ignorance lasted until about ten minutes ago, when I finally looked it up and found that pied in English means ‘multi-colored’ and is used especially in the names of birds, such as a ‘pied wagtail’. So the pied piper was called that because he wore a suit of many colors, like a clown or a court jester.
In the original story, the pied piper went to the mayor of Hameln and offered to rid the town of rats, for a fee. The mayor agreed and the pied piper used his magic pipe to lure all the rats into the nearby Weser River, where they all drowned. But the mayor then refused to pay the promised fee, whereupon the pied piper took revenge by playing his magic pipe to lure all the town’s children, who followed him out of the town and were never seen again.
The libretto of Into the little hill sets the Pied Piper story in modern times, “on the eve of an election”. A government Minister, who wants to be re-elected, is confronted by an angry crowd demanding that the rats be destroyed. The Minister tries to defend the rats and explains that they have a place in society, but the crowd is adamant: “Kill and you have our vote.”
Later the Minister finds a blank-faced stranger in his daughter’s bedroom “stooped over his sleeping child.” The stranger says he charmed his way in with music: “With music I can open a heart / as easy as you can open a door / and reach right in / march slaves to the factory / or patiently unravel the clouds. / With music I can make death stop / or rats stream and drop from the rim of the world: / the choice is yours.” The Minister promises the stranger a large sum of money in return for destroying the rats and ensuring his re-election. The stranger makes him swear by his sleeping child to keep his promise.
The most memorable scene for me was when the Minister’s child is at the window with her mother watching the rats stream past, wearing hats and coats and carrying their babies. “Why must the rats die, Mummy?” she says. “Because they steal the things we’ve locked away. A rat’s not human.” And she explains to her child: “Only rats in storybooks wear hats and coats and carry babies.” The child asks how the rats will die, and the mother says “with dignity”.
After the Minister is re-elected, the stranger returns to collect his fee “for the extermination”. The Minister claims that the rats were not exterminated but “left of their own free will”. He says the stranger’s music was “incidental” so he doesn’t have to pay for it. The next morning, the mothers of the town wake up to find that their children have vanished in the night. The Minister’s wife asks her husband “Where is my child?” and she hears the children reply that they are underground, “inside the little hill”, burrowing towards the light. When she tells them to stop lying and to come home, they answer that they are home: “This is our home. Our home is under the earth. With the angel under the earth. And the deeper we burrow the brighter his music burns. Can’t you see? Can’t you see? Can’t you see?”
There are only two singers in this opera, a soprano and a contralto, who tell the story and play all the roles. They sang in English and the text was understandable, for the most part, but in a few places I was glad to have the French surtitles to help me. The staging by Jacques Osinski was intelligent and appealing, with ingenious black-and-white videos by Yann Chapotel.
This was not my first encounter with Into the little hill, since I had seen it in a different production twelve years before at the Bockenheimer Depot in Frankfurt.
Into the little hill was the first opera by George Benjamin and Martin Crimp, but they have since written two others (which I haven’t seen yet): Written on skin (2012) and Lessons on love and violence (2018).
During the renovation of 2015-2016, the Athénée Théâtre Louis-Jouvet took the opportunity to enlarge and modernize its orchestra pit, which can now accommodate up to thirty musicians. Into the little hill was composed for only fifteen musicians, so they had plenty of room in the enlarged pit.
The fifteen musicians were all members of the Ensemble Carabanchel, a chamber orchestra that was founded in 2013 by the Argentine musician-composer Fernando Fiszbein. The Carabanchel ensemble consists of solo musicians with classical training, but is dedicated to the unusual combination of “avant-garde music and world music,” particularly popular Latin American music, though they are also “open to other forms of artistic expression” and are imbued with “a festive spirit, which Fernando likes to call a popular avant-garde counterculture.”
I hadn’t read their website before seeing them perform, but I was immediately struck by the “festive spirit” of the musicians in the pit, who seemed delighted to be there and to be working with each other and their conductor Alphonse Cemin.
Since Into the little hill lasts only about an hour, it was preceded by another George Benjamin composition called Flight for solo flute, played by flutist Claire Luquiens standing alone on the stage, first in the dark and then gradually illuminated by mysterious lighting effects.
My photos and text in this post are from 2019.
See also: La Carmencita at the Athénée