The Théâtre Royal de Liège, home of the Royal Opera of the Wallonia, was closed for several years to be reconstructed and enlarged. When I was there in 2011, I had the impression that the original building would be dwarfed by the new tower for stage machinery which was under construction at the rear. (But I haven’t seen it since it was finished.)
The theater was originally built in 1816, so it had already been there for nearly a quarter century when Victor Hugo first saw it in 1840. Evidently he didn’t like it very much. In his book Le Rhin (The Rhine) he wrote:
Liège no longer has its Dominican convent, that dark cloister with such a superb reputation, that noble edifice with such a proud architecture. Instead it has, at precisely the same site, a theater embellished with columns crowned with ornamental capitals in the style of Le Conte, where they play comic operas. The cornerstone of this theater was laid by Mademoiselle Mars.
You can almost hear the sneer in his voice when he mentions comic operas and especially Mademoiselle Mars, a popular French actress of the Comédie Française in Paris whose real name was Anne Françoise Hyppolyte Boutet Salvetat (1779-1847).
In front of the opera house is a statue of the composer André-Modeste Grétry (1741-1813), who was born in Liège and became an incredibly successful composer of comic operas in Paris. Today his operas are rarely if ever performed.
Grétry was buried in the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, but fifteen years after his death his heart was allegedly removed and taken to Liège where it was placed inside this statue. (I wonder how much of the heart was still there after fifteen years of burial. Maybe it had been embalmed in some way?)
While the opera house was being rebuilt, the Royal Opera of Wallonia performed in the “Opera Palace”, which was actually a large tent that was set up “in record time” in the district of Outremeuse (meaning “The Other Side of the Meuse”) on the now-vacant site of the former Hospital of Bavière.
The General and Artistic Director of the Royal Opera, Stefano Mazzonis, was quoted on the opera’s website as saying: “When we were searching for a hall that could accommodate our performances during two seasons, we looked at thirty-some places. None of them fulfilled our technical requirements. Then I remembered this big tent which had welcomed Venetian opera goers during nine seasons after the fire that destroyed the Opera Fenice in Venice. It turned out that the tent was for sale. So we bought it!”
Next door to the opera tent there was a derelict building with mysterious graffiti. Secu means Social Security and Rire Vivre Libre means “laugh live free”, but I’m afraid I’ll have to pass on the rest. (Perhaps some local person can explain?) This is a building that was left over from the old Bavière Hospital, because it was still used for a while longer, after most of the hospital buildings were vacated in 1985.
To me, the words on the front of the old hospital building were just as puzzling as the graffiti, because some of the letters were woven together in a way that was fashionable in the Art Nouveau period. I finally figured out that the main word was Stomatologie, which is the French word for (you guessed it) stomatology. This turns out to be the branch of medicine that deals with the mouth and its diseases, though most people today would go to a dentist for this sort of thing instead of saying “Take me to a stomatologist.”
Since 1985 there have been numerous projects and proposals for the development of this site where the hospital used to be, but for various reasons they have all fallen through. In April 2016 the Province of Liège and the City of Liège finally unveiled a ‘Master Plan’ for the development of the site, to include housing, sports facilities, schools and a cultural center. Apparently there was considerable controversy about whether cars would be allowed to run rampant on the site. Now a compromise solution has been proposed, in which parts of the site will be pedestrianized and the number of parking places reduced from 1000 to 750 (which is still a scandalous waste of space, in my opinion, but never mind).
The opera tent was actually a group of tents, of which the front ones served as a roomy and elegant foyer.
The opera I saw in Liège was Salomé by Richard Strauss (1864-1949), but sung this time in French, not in the original German. This took a bit of getting used to, since I have heard it so often in German, but it works fine either way.
So this time the first line of the opera was: Comme la princesse Salomé est belle ce soir! instead of the familiar Wie schön ist die Prinzessin Salome heute Nacht! (How beautiful Princess Salome is tonight!)
The opera Salomé was first performed in German in 1905. The composer himself was involved in preparing the text of the French version, which debuted in 1907. His intention was to follow as closely as possible the original French text of the play Salomé by Oscar Wilde (who wrote it directly in French, not English), while at the same time making sure it fit the music.
Wilde’s play and Strauss’s opera are based on a story from the bible (Mark 6:21-28), but with one important difference. In the Bible, Salomé demands the head of John the Baptist from her stepfather, King Herod, because her mother tells her to. But in the play and the opera, it is her own idea, because Jochanaan (John the Baptist) refused to love her.
In the opera tent there were 1100 seats — so it could actually hold more people than the old opera house. From all the seats there was a good view of the stage. The acoustics were surprisingly good, but during part of the performance of Salomé there was a heavy rainstorm outside and we could hear a low rustling sound of the rain falling on the tent. (This was irritating at first, but it was all right as soon as I realized what it was.)
Since there was no orchestra pit in the tent, I was afraid the 110-piece orchestra might be too loud and drown out the singers, but this was not the case. What did happen was that the orchestra was spread out more than usual across the whole width of the tent, so it was easier to hear the individual instruments and groups of instruments, rather than a compact mass of sound. (I liked this, but some people prefer the usual arrangement.)
The lights in the tent were concentrated on two lighting towers located in the middle of the audience. Before the performance the two lighting man climbed up the towers and stayed up there throughout the evening.
My photos in this post are from 2011. I revised the text in 2017.
See more posts about Liège, Belgium.