This theater was built in 1846-47 to replace an earlier theater that had been destroyed by fire. For many years it was called Opéra-Théâtre d’Avignon or just Opéra d’Avignon, but on January 1, 2013 it was given a classy new name, so now it is officially known as the Opéra Grand Avignon.
The reason for this is that the opera is now supported not only by the financially strapped city of Avignon, but by Avignon and sixteen surrounding cities and towns which have joined together to form the agglomération of Grand Avignon.
For the benefit of my fellow Anglophones, I should point out that the name Grand Avignon does not necessarily mean they have delusions of grandeur. Grand simply means large or larger.
Also the word agglomération needs a bit of explanation, since it has mainly negative connotations in English but not in French. The English dictionary on my desk defines agglomeration as “a confused mass or pile” and gives as an example sentence: “The town is surrounded by agglomerations of ugly new houses.” But in French the connotations are neutral or even positive. The French word (pronunciation here) means simply a city and its suburbs and nearby towns which have joined together to cooperate in various ways, without totally giving up their independence.
In addition to running and financing the opera house, the Communauté d’agglomération du Grand Avignon (to give it its full name) is responsible for economic development, land use, environmental protection and public transport. The bike sharing system Vélopop’ is a project of Grand Avignon, as is the new tramway system, the first line of which is under construction as of 2017.
In most parts of France, the mayor of the largest city is usually also the president of the agglomération, but this is not the case in Grand Avignon (as of 2017) because the mayor of Avignon, Cécile Helle, is a Socialist while the Conservatives have a majority in most of the surrounding area. So at present the mayor of Villeneuve lez Avignon, Jean-Marc Roubaud, is the president of Grand Avignon, even though his town is much smaller than Avignon itself.
These statues of the playwrights Corneille (1606-1684) and Molière (1622-1673) are located to the left and right of the front entrance to the theater. Corneille was best known for his tragedies and Molière for his comedies, so nineteenth-century French theaters liked to display statues of both to show that they performed both genres (unlike earlier theaters which specialized in one or the other).
The auditorium of the opera house is arranged in the notorious ‘Italian style’ with horseshoe-shaped balconies, meaning that those sitting off to the sides of the balconies do not necessarily have a full view of the stage. This arrangement was popular in the nineteenth century and earlier — popular especially among those who could afford to pay for the more expensive seats in the center. The Opéra Grand Avignon has seats for 1,120 spectators.
When I was in Avignon I saw a concert performance of an opera called Le Dilettante d’Avignon by Jacques-Fromental Halévy (1799-1862).
This comic opera was a big hit in Paris when it premiered in 1829. In its first season it was performed over a hundred times at the Opéra-Comique, and it remained in the repertoire of opera houses all over France for the next two decades. But then it was forgotten, and not performed again until April 2014 in Avignon.
There were numerous microphones set up all over the stage because they were recording the performance to make a CD of it.
The title figure of this comic opera is Maisonneuve, a silly, pompous character who could have been invented by Molière, but wasn’t.
In this opera, Maisonneuve is the Director of the Avignon Opera House in the early nineteenth century. Like many French people at that time, he was convinced that only Italians could sing opera properly, so he ordered his stage director to fire all the French singers, including the entire chorus, and hire Italian singers instead.
Maisonneuve himself insisted on being called Casanova. His daughter Elise, a lovely French soprano, went by the Italian name of Corinaldi at the insistence of her father. So the stage director simply re-hired all the French singers and gave them Italian names. Since Maisonneuve spoke hardly any Italian he didn’t notice the difference for a long time, and the others could string him along.
There is a funny scene where his daughter tries to teach him to pronounce the Italian word for aveuglement (meaning blindness or self-deception), and another where he starts getting suspicious because the supposedly Italian tenor speaks perfect French.
In the first row, from left to right: The tenor Mathias Vidal, who played the role of Dubreuil aka Imbroglio; the soprano Virginie Pochon, who played Marianne aka Marinette; the soprano Mélody Louledjian, who played Elise aka Corinaldi; and the baritone Arnaud Marzorati, who played the comic role of Maisonneuve aka Casanova.
I must admit that the soprano Mélody Louledjian has a great voice and fantastic stage presence.
She has often sung at the Grand Théâtre de Bordeaux and has also performed at the Opéra Garnier, the Opéra Comique, the Théâtre du Châtelet and the Théâtre de l’Athénée-Louis Jovet in Paris. (See my post Ten days, eight operas, seven venues for a look at these Paris venues.)
Starting in the 2017/2018 season she will be an ensemble member at the Grand Théâtre de Genève in Switzerland.
In The Dilettante of Avignon Mélody Louledjian was excellent in the role of Elise — even though she was only their second choice to be the singer of this role. Their first choice was Eva Ganizate, who was memorialized at the beginning of the program booklet:
The text reads: “This concert is dedicated to the memory of Eva Ganizate, who tragically lost her life on the 4th of January of this year. A rising star of the French lyrical scene, she was scheduled to sing the role of Elise in the Dilettante d’Avignon.”
They did not explain how she died, but I already knew since I had read about it at the time. On her twenty-eighth birthday, she and a friend were riding their bicycles along a country road at night when they were hit by a car, and she was killed instantly. The press reports all noted that they did not have lights on their bicycles and were not wearing reflective clothing, but did not mention the behavior of the car driver. Was the driver speeding, phoning or texting? No one seems to have asked. While I am certainly in favor of using bicycle lights at night — Eva Ganizate might still be alive if she had used them — what bothers me is that in France as in other over-motorized countries the press and the police are quick to blame the victims of road violence, without even investigating the behavior of the assailants.
Address of the opera house: 1 Rue Racine, 84000 Avignon
Location, aerial view and photo of the opera house on monumentum.fr
Update 2017: Since the death of Eva Ganizate, her home village of Saint-Benoît-du-Sault, a medieval village with a population of 700 located 80 km east of Poitiers, has been holding a Festival Eva Ganizate each summer. They write: “Faithful to the personality of Éva, the festival presents a range of classical works combining famous works, unknown pieces deserving to be rediscovered and creations of contemporary composers. Its ambition is also to make known to the public young lyrical talents destined to perform in the future on the largest French and international stages.”
My photos in this post are from 2014. I revised the text in 2017.