Whatever else you might have heard about Toulon, you should be aware that it has a gorgeous nineteenth century opera house — one of the largest opera houses in France outside of Paris.
The Toulon Opera aka Théâtre Municipal was inaugurated in 1862. A few years ago it was beautifully renovated, just in time for its 150th anniversary in 2012.
Unlike the Marseille Opera, which faces north and thus is nearly always in the shade, the Toulon Opera faces south and looks glorious when the sun is shining on its nicely renovated façade.
The Toulon Opera was built in nineteen months and was inaugurated on October 12, 1862 — thirteen years before the inauguration of the Garnier Opera in Paris, as Toulon’s local patriots are fond of pointing out.
Here are some children and young people on the steps of the opera house, waiting to go in for the performance of Carmen.
Originally the Toulon Opera had seats for 1797 spectators, but now it only seats 1350. This is a typical development for older theaters and opera houses, since people are larger in the twenty-first century than they were in the nineteenth, and need (or demand) more leg room.
You can still buy tickets here at the box office at the front of the opera house, but it is often more convenient to book them online at http://www.operadetoulon.fr/.
If you don’t mind getting a stiff neck, have a good look at the ceiling of the Toulon opera house. The painting up there is fifteen meters in diameter and portrays 123 “personages”, which I presume includes angels, demons, busts and statues in addition to people. The artist, Louis Duveau (1818-1867), painted all this on a large canvas which was later mounted on the ceiling.
In my photo, in the lower left-hand corner, you might be able to make out the bust of the dramatist Pierre Corneille (1606-1684) surrounded by some of the characters from his plays such as Cleopatra, Le Cid (better known in Spanish as El Cid), Oedipus and Antigone.
On Corneille’s left is the bust of another dramatist, Jean Racine (1639-1699). He is also accompanied by some characters from his plays, such as Nero (presumably the fat man in the red toga), Athalie and Esther.
Above Racine’s head is an angel with a trumpet, a figure from ancient Greek and Roman mythology called Pheme or Fama who represented fame and reputation but also rumor and gossip.
In the lower right-hand corner of the photo is a bust of a composer who was immensely popular in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries but has since been more or less forgotten, namely André-Modeste Grétry (1741-1813). Grétry composed about fifty operas, mainly comic operas, none of which I have ever seen or heard. When I went to the Grétry museum in his home town of Liège, Belgium, I was the only visitor. The man in charge was evidently bored just sitting around waiting for someone to come, so when I arrived he was delighted and told me thousands of things about Grétry and the museum and the neighborhood where he grew up. Later I also visited a Grétry exhibition in the French town of Montmorency, which is where Grétry died in 1813.
The opera I saw in Toulon in October 2012 was Carmen by Georges Bizet, with its rousing chorus in praise of “that intoxicating thing: Liberty! Liberty!” — the same opera I had seen just two days before in a different production in the nearby city of Marseille.
According to operabase.com, Bizet’s Carmen is the third most-often-performed opera worldwide, after Verdi’s La traviata and Mozart’s Magic Flute.
(Operabase tabulated the number of performances worldwide over a five-year period. The fourth, fifth and sixth operas on this list are all by Puccini: La Bohème, Tosca and Madame Butterfly.)
The opera houses in Marseille and Toulon both opened their 2012/2013 seasons with Carmen, so I was able to see this opera twice within three days in two different productions.
The Carmen I saw in Toulon was quite traditional, with old-timey Andalusian costumes and folklore. I’m sure this was fine for the many children and young people in the audience, who had probably never seen it before. It was all right for me, as well, since I don’t mind seeing a traditional staging occasionally — though personally I’m glad that stage directors in Germany are more ambitious.
The stage set in Toulon was not only traditional, it was generic. I later learned from an interview with the orchestra conductor, Giuliano Carella, that the Toulon Opera had bought this stage set several years before for a very low price, and that the same set has so far been used for three different productions by three different stage directors.
My photos in this post are from 2012. I revised the text in 2018.