In the Royal Opera in the north wing of Versailles Palace I saw an elaborate performance of the musical comedy Le Bourgeois gentilhomme by the playwright Molière (1622-1673) and the composer Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687).
The Royal Opera is a part of the palace that most visitors do not get to see, because it is closed during the daytime and only opened up for performances in the evenings.
Louis XIV had intended from the start to have a Royal Opera House as part of his palace at Versailles. The site was chosen and plans were made as early as 1682, when he first moved in to Versailles. Three years later construction work was started, but it was soon put on hold because of financial difficulties due to various wars that were going on at the time. The site remained dormant for over eighty years until Louis XIV’s successor, his great-grandson Louis XV, finally ordered the opera house to be completed. It was inaugurated by Louis XV on May 16, 1770 — the day of his grandson’s marriage to Marie-Antoinette — with a performance of the opera Persée by Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687). This was an opera which had first been performed eighty-eight years earlier in a temporary theater in Versailles.
Today the Royal Opera in Versailles is one of the oldest theaters in France that is still functioning as such — but it is not THE oldest, by any means. That honor goes to the Opéra-Théâtre in Metz, which was built between 1738 and 1753.
All you loyal readers of my Lyon post Molière at the Théâtre des Célestins might recall that in that city I went in unprepared to see a Molière play, Les Femmes savantes (The Learned Ladies), and understood most of it except for a few essential twists of the plot. These had me baffled until the next morning, when I bought a copy of the play and read it.
So this time I took care to read the text of Molière’s Le Bourgeois gentilhomme (The bourgeois nobleman) before I went to see it at the Royal Opera in Versailles. That was a good thing, because even though I didn’t understand every word they were saying (especially when they were yelling at the top of their lungs or trading obscure seventeenth century insults), I always knew what was going on and why.
In this play, with songs and incidental music by Lully, the main character M. Jourdain is a cloth merchant who has made (and partly inherited) a large fortune and now has pretentions of becoming a nobleman. He hires various experts to teach him music, dancing, fencing and philosophy, and he tries to marry his daughter off to a foppish aristocrat. The role of M. Jourdain was played by Molière himself in the original production in 1670.
In the end it is the daughter’s boyfriend who gets the idea of dressing up as a Turkish prince and doing a ridiculous ceremony to elevate M. Jourdain into the Turkish nobility — sort of like Rossini’s opera The Italian Girl in Algiers, but in reverse.
Le Bourgeois gentilhomme has some of the same elements as Les Femmes savantes, but mixed up in a different way. In Les Femmes savantes the wife is the pretentious one who wants to marry off the daughter to a pedantic intellectual. In Le Bourgeois gentilhomme the wife is one of the sensible characters, along with the daughter and her boyfriend and especially the maid, who always gets the best lines in Molière’s plays. (See also: my post Saint-Cyr-the-School.)
Twelve actors, five singers, three dancers and nine musicians were on the stage in the Royal Opera. The elaborate and very funny staging was by Denis Podalydès. The costumes were by Christian Lacroix, a prominent fashion designer who has lately been designing costumes for the theater. He has even designed the costumes for two recent productions of the Frankfurt Opera: Adriana Lecouvreur by Francesco Cilea and Ezio by Christoph Willibald Gluck.
My photos in this post are from 2014. I revised the text in 2017.