The opera house in Nancy is on an elegant public square called Place Stanislas, which was designed and built in the 1750s on orders of the Duke of Lorraine, Stanislas Leszczynski. The buildings on the four sides of Place Stanislas all have similar neo-classical façades, and two of the corners are decorated with elaborate gates and fountains.
It’s hard to believe that for twenty-five years, from 1958 to 1983, this gorgeous public square was used as a parking lot for automobiles — a typical 20th century misappropriation of public space, which allowed a few hundred car owners to monopolize the square and greatly reduce access for everyone else.
After the cars were finally banned in 1983, Place Stanislas was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, along with the adjoining Place de la Carrière and Place d’Alliance.
In the middle of the square is a bronze statue of Duke Stanislas, whose popularity was enhanced by the fact that he was actually only a puppet-ruler who never had to make any unpopular decisions. The real power in the Duchy was exercised by his son-in-law, King Louis XV (= the 15th) of France, which meant that Stanislas could concentrate on doing good deeds and beautifying the city.
Nancy is one of six French cities with a ‘National Opera’, the others being Paris, Lyon, Strasbourg, Montpellier and Bordeaux.
A ‘National Opera’ is an opera company that is partially financed by the Ministry of Culture and Communication in return for fulfilling a catalogue of artistic, professional, territorial and social objectives. These include:
- performing operas from all periods of opera history, from the baroque era to the present;
- supporting an ensemble of singers, including young professionals;
- giving a specified number of performances in other venues throughout the region;
- doing outreach activities to attract new audiences for the opera.
Thus far I have seen three operas in Nancy, one from the 17th century, one from the 19th and one from the 20th. All three productions were by the same stage director, David Hermann, whose work I know because he has also staged several operas in Frankfurt.
On my first visit to Nancy, in 2015, I saw his staging of Armide by Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687), a composer who was born in Italy but spent most of his adult life working at the court of the French King Louis XIV (= the 14th). Of Lully’s fourteen operas, Armide is the only one I have seen so far, but I have heard some of his other music, for example the songs and incidental music he composed for Molière’s play Le Bourgeois gentilhomme, as described in my post The Royal Opera in Versailles.
Like dozens of other operas by various composers, Lully’s Armide was based on a long epic poem called La Gerusalemme liberata (Jerusalem Delivered) by the Italian poet Torquato Tasso (1544-1595). This poem is a highly fictionalized account of the First Crusade, in which a Christian (European) army attacked and captured the city of Jerusalem in the year 1099.
Of the many fictional characters in Tasso’s poem, Lully and his librettist Philippe Quinault chose two as the main characters of their opera. The first was of course Armide herself (in Italian Armida), a Muslim sorceress, and the second was Renaud (in Italian Rinaldo), the ‘greatest’ of the Christian knights, who endangered the whole crusade by falling under Armide’s spell and forgetting about his military duties while having a love affair with her on her magic island.
Here’s part of the cast of Armide, taking their bows at the end of the performance. Those in the first row are the soloists. From left to right:
- the Congolese tenor Patrick Kabongo, who sang the role of Artémidore. In the second act, Artémidore tries in vain to warn his friend Renaud about the dangers of falling in love with the enchantress Armide.
- the Portuguese tenor Fernando Guimarães, who sang the roles of the Danish Knight and a Wealthy Lover. I had previously seen him in the title role of Monteverdi’s Orfeo in the opera house in Reims.
- the French baritone Marc Mauillon, who sang the roles of Aronte and La Haine (= Hatred).
- the Moroccan soprano Hasnaa Bennani, who sang the role of a Nymphe of the Waters.
- the French soprano Marie-Adeline Henry, who sang the title role of Armide.
- the German tenor Julien Prégardien, who despite his French-looking name really is German. Several years ago he was an ensemble member at the Frankfurt Opera, where I heard him in a number of different roles. Once he came as a guest speaker to my opera appreciation course Opern-Gespräche and spent an entire evening talking with us and answering our questions. Recently I read a review in some French publication which praised Julien Prégardien as “this German singer who swims in the French repertoire like a trout in the Meurthe.” (I’m quoting this from memory; hope I got it right.) The Meurthe is a small river that flows through Nancy. To me it looks like a rather sluggish little river, so I’m not sure it really has trout in it. But the praise is well-deserved, in any case.
- the Swiss mezzo-soprano Marie-Claude Chappuis, who sang the roles of La Sagesse, Sidonie, a Heroic Shepardess and Lucinde.
Behind them are some of the dancers and chorus members.
A few days later I went to see Armide again, and this time I got a seat downstairs, near the back of the orchestra level (aka ‘stalls’). The cast members in this photo are the same as in the first picture, except that from this angle I was able to get two more singers into the photo. The second from the right, in the first row, is the Dutch soprano Judith van Wanroij, who sang La Gloire, Phénice and Mélisse, and the man on the far right is the American bass-baritone Andrew Schroeder, who sang the role of Hidraot, the King of Damas and the uncle of Armide. So it was quite an international cast. The singing was in French, with French surtitles.
As in all opera houses, photography here is forbidden during the performances, but it’s all right to take pictures of the cast during the applause at the end of the evening.
Before the performance of Armide a large photo of the Neptune fountain, which is on Place Stanislas across from the opera house, was projected onto the front of the stage. This turned out to be the beginning of a long video that was shown during the overture, showing a man dressed in a baroque costume walking around Place Stanislas. I don’t know for sure, but I think he was meant to represent Duke Stanislas himself.
Eventually the man in the video walked into Rue St. Catherine and entered the opera house through the stage door, whereupon he was magically transported to a medieval street full of poor and disabled people, and later found his way to the gorgeous upper lobby of the opera house where the dancers of the Ballet de Lorraine were performing. Just when I thought the whole evening was going to be one long video, it came to an end, the screen went up and the real singers and dancers appeared on the stage.
(I thought at the time that they were going to take this production on tour to other French opera houses, and I wondered if they would use the same video in places where nobody would recognize Place Stanislas or know who Duke Stanislas was. But David Hermann later told me that this production was only performed in Nancy. The same opera was presented a few times in other parts of France that year, also with Julien Prégardien as Renaud, but those were concert performances.)
The performance of Armide lasted about three hours, including one intermission (or ‘interval’, as the British would say). From this photo of people in the lobby during intermission, you can see that there is no particular dress code. Most people are dressed quite informally, so you certainly don’t have to dress up like a penguin to go to an opera in France.
After the intermission there were again some details of the Neptune fountain projected onto the front of the stage.
In the fourth act of Armide, two of Renaud’s comrades-in-arms overcome myriad dangers to get into Armide’s magic palace, break her spell and rescue Renaud from her clutches so he can gird his armor and get on with the crusade.
In the last act Armide is furious at having been jilted by Renaud, so she vents her rage and despair by destroying the magic castle where their love affair took place.
By coincidence the Fine Arts Museum, directly across the square from the opera house in Nancy, includes a large painting entitled “The Destruction of the Palace of Armide”. This is not exactly the way the scene was presented on the opera stage (the soprano Marie-Adeline Henry didn’t get to fly in on a ferocious dragon) but the result was the same. This painting from the year 1737 is by Charles-Antoine Coypel (1694-1752) and was originally intended as a template or pattern (known in those days as a ‘cartoon’) for a tapestry to be made at the Royal Gobelin Manufactory in Paris.
A year later in Vienna I saw another Armide opera, with the same text but completely different music by the German composer Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1787), as described in my post on The Vienna State Opera.
Watch the teaser for Lully’s Armide in Nancy.
Ariadne auf Naxos by Richard Strauss
In 2017 I went back to Nancy and saw David Hermann’s staging of the opera Ariadne auf Naxos by Richard Strauss (1864-1949). This is an opera I have seen many times before, for instance in Koblenz (as mentioned in my post Operas in Koblenz) and in two different productions in Frankfurt, one by Peter Mussbach from the 1990s and one by Brigitte Fassbaender from 2013.
This opera starts with a prologue in the house of “the richest man in Vienna”, who has commissioned a new opera from a promising young composer for the entertainment of his distinguished dinner guests. He has also engaged an Italian musical comedy team and a fireworks display to begin in the garden at nine o’clock precisely. This “richest man” never appears in person, but his orders are relayed by his imperious majordomo (Haushofmeister in German), who informs the composer and performers that because time is short, the tragic German opera and the funny Italian musical must be performed simultaneously, and it’s up to them to work out how to do this.
The composer is a ‘trouser role’ in which a woman, a mezzo-soprano, plays the part of a young man. But in David Hermann’s staging in Nancy she wears high heels in the prologue, suggesting that she might be a female composer this time — which doesn’t prevent her from being beguiled by the Italian soprano Zerbinetta, as the text demands.
A unique feature of this staging is that it begins half an hour before show time in the gorgeous upper lobby of the Nancy opera house, where we see the distinguished dinner guests being served by the majordomo (played by actor Volker Muthmann) in a slow-motion pantomime dinner scene.
They are being serenaded by two violinists from the opera orchestra. This is a brilliant idea because exactly this scene is mentioned but not shown in the prologue, when the composer rushes in and demands to have a rehearsal with the violinists, only to be told that they are not available because they are upstairs playing for the dinner guests.
The same slow-motion pantomime dinner scene is continued during the intermission between the prologue and the actual opera. After the intermission the distinguished guests take their seats in one of the boxes to the left of the stage to watch the opera. At the end, they appear on the stage, led by the majordomo. One of the women takes a selfie of herself with the tenor, who stalks off in disgust, and the majordomo takes a photo of the whole group with his smartphone.
In any new production of Ariadne auf Naxos, I’m always curious to see how (if at all) the composer will be brought into the actual opera, where he/she is actually not intended to appear. In the Nancy production, David Hermann has created a playful little scene in which the composer comes in barefoot (no more high heels) while Zerbinetta is singing her big aria. Zerbinetta is sitting on a swing, so the composer pushes the swing a few times to send her swinging out over the orchestra pit (hopefully the soprano Beate Ritter isn’t afraid of heights). After the aria the composer notes down a few bars of music which Zerbinetta obligingly sight-reads. Then Zerbinetta teases the composer by grabbing the score and waving it around a bit before giving it back.
I should explain that the actual opera takes place on a desert island — desert in the sense of deserted, not dry and sandy. In fact the island in the Nancy production is covered with lush vegetation and has, as a unique feature, a genuine mud-puddle.
Here are some of the singers (and the conductor) bowing at the end of the performance:
The lady in the red dress is Beate Ritter (Zerbinetta). On her right is Andrea Hill (the composer) and on her left is the conductor, Rani Calderon, who is also the music director of the National Opera of Lorraine. To his left are Michael König (Bacchus) and Amber Wagner (Ariadne), both of whom have sung at the Frankfurt Opera on occasion.
Here are some more cast members who didn’t fit in to my first photo. Note that Ariadne’s three companions, Naide, Dryade and Echo, are not dressed as immaculate goddesses this time, but as rough-and-tumble nature girls who don’t mind getting splashed with mud from the mud-puddle and don’t seem shocked (or even surprised) when their new Italian boyfriends are magically transformed into pigs.
Although the fireworks display was not shown on the stage this time (Peter Mussbach showed it in Frankfurt in the form of a splotchy old black-and-white film), we did see something very similar when we left the opera house and stepped out onto the Place Stanislaus in Nancy, where they were “rehearsing” an elaborate sound-and-light show to be held there the following Saturday, involving colorful moving projections on the classical facades on all four sides of the square.
In this photo, the text on the city hall says “Rehearsal underway. See you Saturday June 17 at 22:45.”
Watch the teaser for Ariadne auf Naxos in Nancy.
Address of the opera house: 4, Place Stanislas, 54000 Nancy
Location, aerial view and photo on monumentum.fr.
Historic postcard views of the Nancy Opera on Carthalia.
My photos in this post are from 2015 and 2017. I revised the text in 2018.