Monteverdi’s L’Orfeo in Reims

The Reims Opera House was originally called the Grand Théâtre when it was first built in 1873. It was severely damaged in World War I. After several years’ delay it was rebuilt by two architects named François Maille and Louis Sollier, who kept the original façade but redesigned the interior in the Art Déco style which was popular at the time.

The Reims opera house at night

Like most ‘provincial’ French opera houses (‘provincial’ meaning ‘not in Paris’), the Opéra de Reims only stages one opera per month and only does a few performances, so you have to plan your visit accordingly.

Names above the windows

The names above the windows in this photo are of one composer and three playwrights: Auber, Corneille, Molière and Racine.

Auber (1782-1871) composed over forty operas which were very popular at the time, but are seldom performed today. I’ve actually seen one of them, Le domino noir, which you can read about in my post Auber at the Opéra Comique.

The only reason Auber’s name is well known in Paris today is because the street that bears his name is now the site of a large underground station on the RER A line.

Corneille, Molière and Racine were leading seventeenth century playwrights, during the reign of Louis XIV. Molière wrote comedies which are still very popular; I have seen several of them in recent years just because they happened to be playing in Lyon, Paris or Versailles when I was visiting there. Corneille and Racine, on the other hand, wrote tragedies that everybody has to read in high school in French-speaking countries, but they don’t seem to be performed very often any more; at least I’ve never seen one. (See, however, my post Racine’s Esther in Saint-Cyr.)

Auditorium of the Reims Opera

The interior decoration of the Reims Opera was inspired by the art-déco style of the early twentieth century, but the recently added abstract shapes on the back walls also serve to improve the acoustics of the hall.

Balconies in the Reims Opera

The auditorium in the shape of a horseshoe is typical, according to the theater’s website, of the ‘Italian Style’ theaters that were built so often in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries as the “incarnation of a compartmentalized and hierarchically organized society”.

To improve visibility, the stage was recently rebuilt with an inclination of 4 %, corresponding to the inclination of the main floor of the auditorium. Somewhere upstairs there is a rehearsal stage which also has an inclination of 4 %, so the singers, actors and dancers can become accustomed to it from the beginning of rehearsals.

Program booklet for L’Orfeo in Reims

The opera I saw in Reims was L’Orfeo by Claudio Monteverdi, who was born in Cremona, Italy, in 1567. During his long career he composed numerous madrigals and at least eighteen operas, most of which have been lost. L’Orfeo is his earliest surviving opera, from the year 1607. I had seen L’Orfeo before in two very different productions, once in Darmstadt in 2005 and several times in Frankfurt in 2005/2007, as staged by David Hermann.

The one I saw in Reims was a production of the European Baroque Academy in Ambronay. With one exception, the singers and musicians were all under thirty-one and were participants in the 2013 academy. The one exception was the Portuguese tenor Fernando Guimarães, who sang the title role of Orpheus. He took part in the academy in 2009 and is now a professional opera singer.

Applause after L’Orfeo in Reims

In my photo the singers are taking their bows after the performance. The lady in the red dress on the far left is the mezzo-soprano Claire Bournes, who sang Prosperine, the wife of Pluto (that’s Pluto the King of the Underworld, not Pluto the dog). Next to her is the tenor Riccardo Pisani, who came in at the end for a few minutes as Apollo (originally the Good Guy God, but in this production just another mean trick played on Orpheus by the Evil Spirits of the Underworld). The barefoot lady in the white dress is the mezzo-soprano Reut Ventorero, who sang Eurydice, the girl who dies from a snake bite on her wedding day (I’m sure I don’t have to tell you what the snake symbolizes; the same as in Mozart’s Così fan tutte). The guy in the white shirt next to her is Fernando Guimarães, who sang Orpheus. The man in the center of the first row is the orchestra conductor Leonardo García Alarcón, who is also the musical director of the European Baroque Academy in Ambronay. The lady in the black dress holding the flowers is Francesca Aspromonte, who sang the allegorical figure of La Musica at the beginning of the opera. Next to her is Angelica Monje Torrez as La Messaggiera, followed by Yannis François as Pluto and Iosu Yeregui as Charon.

The folks in the second row are the four dancers and fifteen chorus members, but I can’t identify them by name. (Except that the lady in the black dress behind the conductor is probably the Italian soprano Claudia Conese.)

I liked this production so much that I went back and saw it again the next day. Madame Albou was again working in the box office and sold me a great ticket for first row center of the second balcony, right next to her husband.

Applause for the orchestra

The orchestra consisted of thirty young musicians who had been selected from all over Europe for this project. All of them have had training in Baroque music, and some were playing authentic Baroque instruments.

Two posters on the door of the Reims Opera

The L’Orfeo poster at the Reims Opera shows the joyful wedding of Orpheus and Euridice, when the stage was filled with colorful balloons. Then the messenger came with the news that Euridice was dead, killed by a snake bite. Almost immediately the colorful balloons were gone and the stage was full of black balloons. The first time I saw the opera I was amazed by this sudden transformation, but the second time I paid more attention to how they did it and found that the black balloons had been there all the time, I just hadn’t noticed them until the colored balloons were taken away.

In addition to L’Orfeo, I have seen the other three surviving Monteverdi operas in excellent productions:

  • Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda, Venice 1624, staged as “Combattimenti” by David Hermann in Frankfurt in 2006 along with some shorter pieces by Monteverdi. Especially memorable in this production was the “Dance of the ungrateful women”, featuring Juanita Lascarro as Amore and Katharina Magiera as Venere.
  • Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria (The Return of Ulysses to Ithaca), Venice 1640, staged by David Hermann in Frankfurt in 2007.
  • L’incoronazione di Poppea (The Coronation of Poppea), Venice 1642, staged by Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito in Stuttgart 1999; by Rosamund Gilmore in Frankfurt 2000; by Ute M. Engelhardt in Frankfurt 2014 with Gaëlle Arquez as Nero; and by Serena Sinigaglia in Kiel 2019.

My photos in this post are from 2013. I revised the text in 2018 and 2022.

See more posts on Reims, France.

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