The Lausanne Opera and Gabriel Fauré

The Opéra de Lausanne is the only opera house I know of that looks more impressive from the back than from the front.

The front end still looks much the same as it did when it first opened in 1871, or at least the way it looked after its art-déco renovation in 1932, but the back is completely new.

In 2007 the building had to be closed for safety reasons (and the opera company performed elsewhere). After lengthy controversial discussions, the architects Inès Lamunière and Patrick Devanthéry of designlab-architecture in Geneva were commissioned to rebuild the opera house. Their task was to preserve the 19th century character of the front end while bringing it up to current safety standards, and at the same time to demolish and completely rebuild the back end, creating a new stage and stage tower, new workshops, rehearsal rooms, dressing rooms and offices.

Back of the Lausanne opera house

The façade of the new back end is a mosaic of rectangles made partly of glass and partly of stainless steel. The glass segments reflect the nearby buildings on the east and south sides, and a small public park on the north side. The stainless-steel segments apparently make the building appear larger than it really is, and the thirty-meter high stage tower seems to “merge with the sky”, at least in the opinion of the architects.

Stage door and adjacent park

The stage door (Entrée des Artistes) is now at the far back corner on rue Beau-Séjour, next to the park.

Stage door (Entrée des Artistes)

If I’m ever in Lausanne on a sunny day I’ll try to get some better photos of the new back end of the opera house, because it really is impressive.

As for the front end, I think it could have used a bit of expansion, since there is not much in the way of foyer space for spectators to use during intermissions.

Crowding at the cloakroom after a performance

Also there is only one cloakroom for the entire auditorium, which means that retrieving coats and hats after the performance can involve some crowding and waiting.

Plaque on the front of the Lausanne opera house

On the front façade of the Opéra de Lausanne, the first thing I noticed was this plaque, which reads:

The French musician and composer Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924) stayed
in Lausanne many times between 1871 and 1913.
It was here that he began composing his opera Pénélope during the summer of 1907.
After its world premiere in 1913 at the Opera of Monte-Carlo,
and then at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris,
the work was presented for the first time in Lausanne,
in this theatre, on September 3, 2000.

This was a nice surprise for me because I had just seen Pénélope for the first time a few weeks before, in its first-ever Frankfurt production, conducted by Joana Mallwitz and directed by Corinna Tetzel, with Paula Murrihy singing the title role. Like most people, I hadn’t known that Fauré ever wrote an opera, though I was acquainted with some of his songs and chamber music.

In this opera, Pénélope has been waiting twenty years for her husband Ulysse to return from the Trojan War, but when he finally appears he has changed so much that she doesn’t recognize him, or claims not to. The Frankfurt production has earned a great deal of praise for everyone involved, and will probably be revived once or twice in the coming years, but it is unlikely to become any sort of staple of the repertoire. The music is lovely but the libretto is weak, as Fauré himself complained at the time in his many letters to the librettist.

The reason Fauré spent so many summers in Lausanne (or other lakeside towns in Switzerland) was that he had to get away from Paris in order to find the time to compose. In Paris his duties as a teacher, and later as head of the Paris Conservatory, took up most of his time while he was there.

As I have mentioned elsewhere, the early decades of the twentieth century were a time of great popularity of a then-new invention called the player piano, which typically had a long roll of perforated paper as its data storage medium. I was interested to learn that Fauré made piano rolls of his music for several companies between 1905 and 1913. Some of these piano rolls still exist, so theoretically it is still possible to hear Fauré playing the piano — and see the piano keys go up and down as he plays — assuming you have a player piano that is in working order.

Here you can watch the trailer for Pénélope at the Frankfurt Opera.

My photos in this post are from 2019. I wrote the text in 2020.

See also: La belle Hélène in Lausanne.

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