The amazing thing about my visit to Paris in June 2006 was that in ten days I saw eight operas at seven different venues. As I wrote at the time, “I don’t know of any other city in the world where this would be possible.”
Besides the magnificent new Opéra Bastille, where I saw two productions, I also went to opera performances at the Théâtre du Châtelet, the Opéra Garnier, the Opéra Comique, the Théâtre du Champs-Élysées, the Athénée Théâtre Louis-Jouvet and an open-air opera performance in the Senate Gardens, right behind Luxembourg Palace.
I’ll have more to say about these venues in future posts (they don’t always play so many operas at once), but in this entry I’d just like to introduce them and tell you what I saw there in 2006.
This new opera house was built in the 1980s and inaugurated in 1989 on the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution. It is one of two large venues run by the Opéra National de Paris, the other being the Opéra Garnier. “Raise the anchor of your emotions” was their motto for the 2006/2007 season.
Unlike most German opera companies, they do not have a permanent ensemble of singers, but hire the singers separately for each production. They do have a permanent orchestra and chorus, though. The orchestra has 170 members and is often divided into two halves, known as the green and blue orchestras, when two different productions are on the schedule at the two venues.
The Bastille Opera has 2703 seats (1571 downstairs, 518 in the first balcony, 516 in the second and 98 in the galleries), and they claim you can see and hear perfectly well from all of them.
The first opera performance I saw here was La Damnation de Faust by Hector Berlioz (1803-1869). There is some controversy about whether this is really an opera — the composer called it a “dramatic legend” — but it certainly seemed like an opera the way they staged it at the Bastille. They used stunning lighting and video effects, as well as large groups of perfectly synchronized dancers and acrobats. And musically it was first-rate as well, right up there with the two CD versions of it that I have at home.
Opéra Bastille, 130 rue de Lyon, 75012 Paris, http://www.operadeparis.fr/
In terms of the number of seats that they can actually put on sale for any given evening, around 1,750, this is only the third largest opera house in Paris (assuming you still count the Châtelet as an opera house). But when you consider the amount of stunningly high-quality space that is available in the Opéra Garnier for these 1,750 people to walk around in, for instance the entrance hall, the Grand Staircase, the balconies overlooking the Grand Staircase, the Grand Foyer, the avant-foyer, the Rotonde des abonnés and the loggia, then their claim that this is the world’s largest theater begins to seem plausible.
All you loyal readers of my Nürnberg post Feel Gluck in Nürnberg might recall that there I talked about the composer Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1787) and his opera Iphigenie in Aulis, composed in 1774. Well, at the Opéra Garnier in Paris in 2006 I saw the sequel, Iphigenie en Tauride, with the American mezzo-soprano Susan Graham in the title role. She has been one of my all-time favorite singers ever since I saw her as Octavian in Birmingham, England, in the 1990s. As Iphigenie she was fantastic as usual, and was enthusiastically cheered by the audience in the Opera Garnier.
The orchestra and the other singers were first-rate, as well, and the attractive stage set included reflecting walls that could be raised or lowered at appropriate times. Up where I was sitting we saw the orchestra and conductor reflected on those walls, and the folks downstairs saw the reflection of the golden balconies of the large hall, which I thought was a beautiful way of incorporating the magnificent architecture of the building into the staging of the opera itself.
The one thing that detracted somewhat from the performance was the fact that the stage director had decided it should take place in an old-people’s home, so there were about twenty extra players as old women limping around the stage at various times. Normally I am quite good at figuring out what the stage directors are trying to say (I know some of these folks and am on their wavelength, so to speak), but this time I was quite baffled. And I wasn’t the only one, because when these extra players came on stage to take their bows at the end, the whole house erupted in loud boos. (Which was a bit unfair to these poor ladies who were only doing what the stage director told them to do. As this performance was not the premiere, the stage director was no longer there to take the blame.)
The paintings on the ceiling were commissioned by the writer Andre Malraux, who at the time was Minister of Culture in the French government, and were painted by Marc Chagall between 1960 and 1964.
Théâtre du Châtelet
The Place du Châtelet on the right bank of the Seine is unique in that it is flanked by two large and (from a distance) identical-looking theaters, both of which belong to the city of Paris.
The one on the right is the Théâtre de la Ville, which is where the great actress Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1943) used to hold forth, in fact the theater was named after her from 1949 to 1967, and one of the cafes on the ground floor still bears her name. Spoken drama is still an important part of their program, but they also do numerous dance productions, classical music concerts and “musics of the world” featuring recitals by musicians from India and the Middle East.
The one on the left is the Théâtre du Châtelet, which in 2006 was essentially a municipal opera house with about 1800 seats.
[Update: As of 2017, both of these theatres are closed for renovation.]
The opera I saw at the Théâtre du Châtelet in 2006 was a concert performance of Le Château de Barbe-Blue (Bluebeard’s Castle) by Bela Bartok (1881-1945), which I remembered from a staged production in Frankfurt am Main in 1994 and 1997.
Since this is such a short opera (only one hour) they always try to find something to combine it with to make a full evening. The solution in Frankfurt was to sing the same opera twice but have the action run backwards, so to speak, on the second time through. The seven ominous doors in Bluebeard’s Castle were all gradually sealed up with bricks during the first showing, and the bricks were gradually removed during the second, with the character of Judith reacting accordingly, getting helplessly trapped the first time and emancipating herself the second. At the time I liked this idea, and I went to several performances, but it didn’t fill the house.
The solution in Paris was to precede Bluebeard with Daphnis et Chloe by Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) for orchestra and chorus but without the dancers, the connection being that both works were composed at about the same time, around 1911. The big attraction of this program, and the reason all three performances were sold out weeks in advance, was that the great Jessye Norman came out of retirement, so to speak, to sing the role of Judith in Bluebeard. Which she did exceedingly well. She was sixty years old, but still at the height of her powers.
If the weather is at all conducive at intermission time, you can step out onto the upper terrace of the Théâtre du Châtelet to have some fine views of the Seine with its bridges, and the Ile de la Cite off to the right. The bridge in the foreground in the first photo is the Pont au Change, and the metal one further on is the Pont Notre Dame. The towers of Notre Dame are visible in the center of the photo, and the building on the right is the Tribunal de Commerce on the Quai de la Corse.
Théâtre du Châtelet, 2, rue Edouard Colonne 75001 Paris
See also: Jacques Offenbach at the Châtelet
Théâtre des Champs-Élysées
This theater is not on the famous Avenue des Champs-Élysées, but is several blocks from there near the Place de l’Alma on the right bank of the Seine. This is a very swanky district of Paris, in fact the whole neighborhood reeks of money.
Of all the opera venues I went to in June 2006 this was the one with the highest percentage of men wearing suits and ties, maybe 35 or 40 percent. These looked to be high-powered business types who had come directly from their air-conditioned offices in their air-conditioned chauffeur-driven automobiles. But the theater itself was not adequately air-conditioned, so it was amusing to watch some of these chaps (not all) finally give in and start taking off their jackets and loosening their ties.
Opps, there’s only one man wearing a suit and tie in these photos. So you’ll have to take my word for it that there were more downstairs in the expensive seats.
This theater is unusual in that it is not much more than a century old, having been built in 1913. It is said to be one of the few major examples of Art Nouveau in Paris. The stage is small and has little in the way of fancy machinery, so to change sets that have to lower the curtain and play a scene or two in front of it while armies (evidently) of stage hands change everything around by muscle-power, not without all the old-timey thumping and thudding sounds that you don’t hear any longer in modernized theaters where everything is done by hydraulics or electricity.
The opera I saw at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in 2006 was Mozart’s Don Giovanni, with world-class singers including Lucio Gallo and Anna Bonitatibus, both of who have given gala performances in Frankfurt, and Patricia Ciofi, whom I had seen on television but never live. The setting in this production was a somewhat seedy little seaside town in present-day Spain or Italy, with Don Giovanni as a somewhat pimpish local potentate.
What really impressed me was the ending, in which stage director André Engel managed to combine the last two scenes (I’ve never seen that done before). And after all these many years (this opera is over two hundred years old, after all) he even came up with a surprise ending.
Shall I tell you what it is? After the final jubilation chorus about how he got what was coming to him, Don Giovanni emerged unscathed from the flames, dusted off his dapper three-piece suit and stood there with a triumphant smirk on his face as the curtain fell.
Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, 15 Avenue Montaigne – 75008 Paris
Opéra Comique, Salle Favart
In 1875 Bizet’s Carmen had its world premiere here at the Opéra-Comique. Also Debussy’s Pelleas et Mélisande and Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann had their world premieres here, so this is a hall that is full of great opera history.
The performance I saw here was of The Barber of Seville by Gioacchino Rossini (1792-1868), sung in Italian with French titles. It was a light-hearted, enthusiastic performance with fine singers and even some acrobats who did funny and appropriate things without getting in the way of the music. (As a paid-up member of the German Rossini Society I tend to feel a proprietary interest in Rossini’s operas, LOL, and am always glad to see them performed well.)
Opéra Comique, 5, rue Favart (Place Boieldieu), 75002 Paris
Location, aerial view and photo on monumentum.fr.
Athénée Théâtre Louis-Jouvet
This historic theater was built in the 1890s and has been a subsidized public theater since 1982. It is used mainly for spoken drama, but also has a small orchestra pit for musical productions.
La Carmencita, which I saw there, is an adapted version of the opera Carmen by Georges Bizet, re-written for nine singers, one actor and fifteen musicians. The intention was to re-tell the story with the intensity of a small-theater drama, and it worked beautifully. But the main purpose of this series of eight performances was to show off the fantastic young singer-actors who were just graduating from the Young Singers of the Rhine at the National Opera of the Rhine in Strasbourg. I don’t know when I’ve ever seen a more seductive young Carman than Carolina Bruck Santos or a more expressive young Don José than Roger Padulles Pubill. So if you ever see these names on the playbill of some big opera house, remember you read about them here first.
The long-time director of this theatre, Louis Jouvet, was also a famous French film star. See my post Atmosphère, atmosphère . . .
Sq. de l’Opéra Louis-Jouvet, 7 rue Boudreau, 75009 Paris
See also: my later post on the Athénée Théâtre Louis-Jouvet.
Mozart in the rain
It only rained once during the ten days I was in Paris in June 2006, and that was — you guessed it — ten minutes before show time at an open-air opera performance in the Senate Gardens, which are in the Luxembourg Gardens right behind Luxembourg Palace.
A nice announcer on the PA system said the shower had been “annoncé pour cinq minutes” and thanked us for remaining in our seats. After five minutes the rain seemed to be letting up a bit, so they started the overture (the orchestra was under a roof, but someone had to hold an umbrella over the conductor) and the singers and dancers started doing their thing in the rain.
After a few more minutes it became clear that “ça n’a pas l’air de s’arranger”, so they asked us to retain our tickets and come back the following Sunday evening, same time same place. This was lucky for me because Sunday was the only evening I still had free.
Later they sent an e-mail confirming the change of date, which I thought was very good service. They had my e-mail address because I had originally booked online.
Here (above) is what the venue looked like the day before while they were getting it set up.
Here (above) it’s already looking a bit stormy. The building is Luxembourg Palace, which is the meeting place of the French Senate.
I wasn’t the only one to stop and take a picture of the Medici Fountain, which was commissioned in 1624 by the notorious Marie de Medici, widow of the murdered King Henri IV. I wondered what that voluminous lady would have thought of the funny addition to her reflecting pool that was there temporarily in 2006.
On Sunday the weather held, so we had an uninterrupted performance of The Magic Flute in honor of the 250th birthday of its composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. It was sung in German with French titles. The performance was adequate but not outstanding. There were no Germans in the cast, but they sang the German text well enough; most professional singers can sing in any language if they are well enough prepared. But the spoken dialogues were something else again. They sounded like a class play after an intermediate German class at the Goethe Institute. I would have given the tenor a B- and flunked everybody else.
But it was fun just seeing and hearing that great and very familiar opera in such a brilliant setting on a cool evening after a hot day of cycling.
Here are the Luxembourg Gardens as seen from the Montparnasse Tower. If you look carefully you might just be able to make out the bleachers behind the palace.
On my last evening in Paris in June 2006 I was walking to the Opera Bastille, feeling somewhat sorry for myself because I had already turned in my bicycle to the rental place (this was a year before the introduction of the Vélib’ bikes), and would have to leave Paris the next morning. I was walking through the Place des Vosges when I heard a soprano voice singing an opera aria. Then that one stopped and another one started. I followed the sound and came upon two young ladies standing under the arches at the entrance to the Rue de Birague (great acoustics!), taking turns singing arias from a dozen different operas, interspersed with an occasional duet like the one between Susanne and the Countess from the third act of Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro.
From their voices and technique I thought at once that they must be trained singers, which indeed they are. Their names are Florence Gelas (on the left) and Olivera Topalovic (on the right). Both were recent conservatory graduates who had already sung their first opera roles and were trying to get started in professional singing careers.
The opera I saw later that evening at the Bastille was none other than L’Elisir d’amore (The elixir of love) by Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848), an opera which I have seen many times before and since in Frankfurt, Vienna, Gießen, Halle, Heidelberg, Prague, etc. (In Czech it is called Nápoj lásky and I have written about it in my post Three opera houses in Prague.)
The mock advertisements on the cover of the program booklet all praise the elixir of the quack doctor Dulcamara, which he claims can cure everything from impotence to constipation. Of course the elixir is just ordinary red wine, but it works beautifully for the love-sick Nemorino in the opera.
My photos in this post are from 2006. I revised the text in 2017.
See more posts on Operas in Paris.