The original Municipal Theater in Lille was built from 1784 to 1787 and served its purpose for over a century, until it burned to the ground in a mysterious fire on the night of April 5-6, 1903. After five years of discussion, the city council held an architectural competition to design a new opera house in the style of those built by Charles Garnier in Paris and Monte Carlo. The competition was won by the local architect Louis-Marie Cordonnier (1854-1940), who also built the very different Chamber of Commerce building next door.
Construction of the new opera house was nearly finished when Lille was occupied by the Germans in 1914 at the beginning of the First World War. The Germans inaugurated the building, which they called the Deutsches Theater in Lille (‘German Theatre in Lille’), and used it for over a hundred opera performances and concerts during their four-year occupation, with a heavy emphasis on Germanic composers such as Wagner, Mozart, Strauss and Beethoven.
After the war the opera house needed renovation. It was re-inaugurated by the French in 1923.
Seventy-five years later, in 1998, a safety inspection of the opera house revealed such grave defects that the building had to be closed for repairs in mid-season. Soon the city council decided to undertake a thorough restoration of the building and modernization of the stage equipment. This took nearly six years, until the opera was re-opened with a gala concert in December 2003, just in time for Lille’s year as a ‘European Capital of Culture’ in 2004.
One of the architectural highlights of Lille is the Grand Foyer of the opera house. It stretches over the entire width of the building, at the front of the first floor (one flight up). The rich ornamentation has been carefully renovated and is now just as stunning as it must have been when it was new.
Since the inside of opera house in Lille looks totally elegant and refined, you might think the spectators would dress up accordingly. But they don’t, here or anywhere else in France that I know of.
Lille is especially casual because it has the youngest population in France, with 25% of the population under the age of twenty-five — or 36%, depending on which website you believe. In any case, there are more than 100,000 students studying in four universities and over twenty Grandes Ecoles in the Lille metropolitan area.
So don’t be afraid to go to the opera in Lille, even if you don’t have any fancy clothes with you. I wore a jacket and tie, but that was accepted as a quaint peculiarity for someone of my advanced age.
The side panels and ceiling in the foyer were created by the French painter Georges Picard (1857-1943), who was famous for his ceiling frescos in the Petit Palais and Hôtel de Ville in Paris as well as the French embassy in Vienna and the theater in Buenos Aires.
Looking out from the Lille opera house, on a typical rainy day, we can see the Place du Théâtre with the historic Vielle Bourse (Old Exchange) on the right.
The auditorium of the Lille Opera (La Grande Salle = The Large Hall) was built in the notorious ‘Italian style’ in the shape of a horseshoe — one of the last halls in France to be built in this form, before it went out of fashion.
The problem with a horseshoe-shaped hall is that the spectators sitting on the sides have only a limited view of the stage, which in earlier times seemed perfectly normal. In the 21st century most of us have the attitude that we are entitled to an unobstructed view of the stage — an attitude that I suspect would have seemed anti-social in the 18th and 19th centuries, when it was considered impolite to just stare at the stage and ignore your fellow spectators.
When the Lille opera house was renovated from 1998 to 2003, they took the opportunity to install new seats that were staggered to improve visibility. Also they changed the slope of the ground floor to give the people in the back rows a better view. The auditorium now has 1138 seats, which I assume is fewer than it had before.
The ceiling of the auditorium is in the form of a painted and gilded cupola or dome. The edges of the cupola are decorated with elaborate paintings and bas-reliefs.
The opera I saw in Lille was Lucia di Lammermoor by Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848), a lovely melodic Italian opera based on a rather long-winded Scottish novel by Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832).
This is the story of a young woman who makes the mistake of falling in love with one of her family’s arch-enemies. Her brother forces her to marry a man she has never met, with the result that she stabs her husband to death on their wedding night and then appears blood-stained on the stage for a quarter-hour ‘mad scene’ — an evocative tour-de-force for a coloratura soprano.
In Lille the role of Lucia was played and sung by the young American soprano Rachele Gilmore in a well-focused and uncluttered production by stage director Stanislas Nordey, conducted by Roberto Rizzi Brignoli. If you wish, you can click here for an excerpt from the second act of the Lille production, with Rachele Gilmore as Lucia and Roman Burdenko as her brother Lord Anrico Ashton.
And here is a video of the mad scene as sung by Rachele Gilmore — not in Lille but at the Knoxville Opera two and a half years earlier, in February 2010.
After the performance of Lucia di Lammermoor in Lille there was a discussion in the opera foyer with the conductor Roberto Rizzi Brignoli and the stage director Stanislas Nordey, who seem to have gotten along very well with each other and with the cast.
Location, aerial view and photo of the Opéra de Lille on monumentum.fr.
My photos in this post are from 2013. I revised the text in 2018.
See also: Vauban’s Citadel in Lille.