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Behind the Curtain at the Paris Opera

Behind the Curtain at the Paris Opera

Sunday, 8 September, 2019 - 06:45
Julien Mignot for The New York Times

The most breathtaking subway exit in the world may be the one at Place de l’Opéra in Paris. Its final steps lead to a postcard-ready view of the sensational Palais Garnier, the love-it-or-hate-it theater with a Baroque, Renaissance and all-around garish pastiche that overwhelms and enchants at every turn.

It was designed by Charles Garnier — you can find a gaudy monument to him outside — and built between 1861 and 1875. Until 1989, it housed both the Paris Opera and the Paris Opera Ballet, until nearly all the opera productions moved to the Garnier’s antithesis: the coldly modern, widely reviled Opéra Bastille.

But the Garnier has always been so much more than just an opera house. It’s essential to the identity of Paris, like the Notre-Dame or Arc de Triomphe. It has transcended further to the realm of pop culture, inspiring Gaston Leroux’s 1910 potboiler novel “The Phantom of the Opera” — and the 1980s Andrew Lloyd Webber megamusical, adding to the thriller an over-the-topness matched only by the opera house itself.

Step inside, though, and it’s immediately clear why the Garnier has cast a spell for so long. No space is left undecorated: the Grand Staircase seemingly stolen from a storybook, the Salon de la Lune’s and Salon du Soleil’s lamps reflected in facing mirrors to infinity. And the Grand Foyer’s Baroque furnishings — ornate columns, multitiered chandeliers, a painted ceiling — are enough to make you faint or feel, for one night, like the star of your own fairy tale.

In the nearly 150 years since the Garnier opened, the building has been updated repeatedly, including electric lighting being installed in the 1880s. Lamps in costume storage add a touch of the modern to an otherwise thoroughly antique space, though now the backstage rooms are devoted mostly to ballet productions, such as the past season’s revival of Rudolf Nureyev’s “Swan Lake.”

Among the theater’s most famous fixtures are the chandelier and the painted ceiling that surrounds it — originally by Jules Eugène Lenepveu, then replaced in 1964 with a new, sprawling work by Marc Chagall depicting scenes from operas by Mozart, Wagner and more.

The theater is ornately grand, yet relatively intimate, with a seating capacity of less than 2,000 — roughly half that of the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Its count of plush burgundy seats is at its peak in the final moments before every show, when the center aisle closes, filled in with more chairs that fold out to leave no space unused.

The ballets scored by Tchaikovsky get mixed treatment at the Garnier. In 2016, the director Dmitri Tcherniakov reunited “The Nutcracker” with its original double-bill partner, the opera “Iolanta,” for an evening with a plot that runs through both works, set amid 20th-century Soviet life. At first glance, the Nureyev staging of “Swan Lake,” which premiered in 1984, looks far more traditional, with hallmarks of 19th-century classicism like white tutus and feathered headpieces. But Nureyev added a dark, distinctly modern Freudian dimension to one of ballet’s most famous tragedies.

For the Paris Opera’s 350th anniversary this year — and the 30th anniversary of its modern house on Place de la Bastille — the company commissioned a series of installations, “Saturnales,” by the French artist Claude Lévêque. One of them, created with the Paris Opera’s workshop, is a pair of gilded tires that blend seamlessly with, and even add rhythm to, the Garnier’s Grand Staircase.

The New York Times

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