Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Oh, the Opéra!

Mercredi, le 16 juillet.

On our last full day in Paris (cue tears), Lynn and I met up and decided to check a few things off our city bucket lists. First up was a trip to the iconic Palais Garnier! I've been dying to visit this building since the last time I was in Paris and finally got around to it.

A beautiful and historic building in its own right, the opera house is definitely best-known for its role in the famous novel (and later musical), The Phantom of the Opera. (But we'll come back to that.) The Palais Garnier was constructed in the late 19th century by order of Emperor Napoleon III. It has been known by many names since its construction, but its current title pays homage to its architect, Charles Garnier, whose design was chosen in a contest. It's been called the most famous opera house in the world, although -- if we're being precise -- the Paris Opera has actually moved in recent years to a more modern (though sadly less opulent) building, the Opéra Bastille

It took the work of seventy-three sculptors to construct the main façade of the Opéra Garnier. The building is topped by two massive (25-foot tall) gilded sculptures, representing l'harmonie and la poésie, or harmony and poetry. Towards the bottom of the building, sculptures flanking the left and right entranceways represent poetry, instrumental music, dance, and lyric drama. La Danse was particularly controversial because of its sensual nature ... Parisians smashed ink bottles on the sculpture in protest! (Proving that even in the 1800s, nobody protested with as much originality as the French.) The original statue by Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux is now displayed in the Musée d'Orsay; all visitors today see is a facsimile.

If you're interested, this great image labels all the stone figures that grace the building's main façade, including the busts of famous composers that appear above the mezzanine. (Thanks, Wikipedia!) You can also click here to learn more about the building's famous sculpture groups.

The outside of the Palais, though stunning, is nothing compared to its opulent interior, which has been restored in recent years to its original appearance. Are you ready for this?!

Above, you can see our view of the avant foyer, famous for its magnificent staircase. However, the true showstopper is the building's Grand Foyer, where opera guests used to mingle before performances. It is a stunning 154 meters in length and lined with mirrors that would have reflected the latest Parisian fashions.

Read more about the Grand Foyer and the building's other rooms here, on the official website.

Of course, the true heart of the Palais is the auditorium itself. (Read about it here.) The house seats almost two thousand guests and the stage -- the largest in Europe -- can accommodate up to 450 performers. (Can you even imagine?) During our visit, employees were hard at work building the sets for an upcoming performance.

The most stunning part of the auditorium (its INCREDIBLE ceiling) is also the most controversial. From the day that the theatre opened in 1875, Garnier was criticized for his use of a single (massive) chandelier. Visitors complained that the massive structure obstructed the view of operagoers in the auditorium's upper levels. To make matters worse, disaster struck in 1896 when one of the chandelier's counterweights broke the ceiling and plummeted to the auditorium floor, killing an audience member. (The whole story is documented here.) Gaston Leroux was later inspired to include the incident in his would-be famous novel, Le Fantôme de l'Opéra; however, in his version, the entire chandelier falls to the stage. It's more exciting that way, I think.

Though the ceiling's structural problems have since been solved, the opera ceiling is not free from controversy. In 1960, the French Minister of Cultural Affairs decided to shake things up at the opera. The original ceiling, painted by Jules Eugène Lenepveu (and visible here) was reinterpreted by Marc Chagall. Chagall's ceiling was installed (on top of Lenepveu's preserved work) in 1964 and has been receiving mixed reviews ever since.

I knew about the seemingly out-of-place piece of modern art and was curious to see how the peculiar ceiling would look in person. However, I surprised even myself by falling absolutely in love with it!

Chagall chose to reference dozens of famous operas, from Bizet's Carmen (depicted in red in the central panel) to Mozart's The Magic Flute and Wagner's Tristan and Isolde. Even Gluck's Orpheus and Eurydice -- which, you might remember, was the first opera I ever saw -- is represented; you can see Eurydice playing the lyre on the central panel (in green). Although the number of works (FOURTEEN!) depicted on the ceiling might seem a little excessive, Chagall's simplified color palette of reds, yellows, blues and greens keeps the whole thing in check.

If you want to know more about Chagall's stunning work, I highly recommend this article from the Palais Garnier's official website.

After peeking into the auditorium, we took a stroll along the balcony. The view was spectacular!

Can you imagine living there -- literally a stone's throw from the opera?!

I promised that I'd come back to The Phantom of the Opera, and here we are. Now that you've received the grand tour of the opera house, it's time to watch the movie trailer and see what you recognize!

They actually filmed this movie on a soundstage in Hollywood, but I've got to say that they did a pretty great job. It looks and feels just like the real opera house!

If you've seen Phantom of the Opera, you know that one of the show's most breathtaking numbers is "Masquerade." The number features dozens of masked and costumed opera-goers descending the opera stairs, before the Phantom arrives (costumed as The Red Death, a character from a famous Edgar Allen Poe short story) and breaks up the party.

Well, that staircase is REAL. Called "a monument inside a monument," the Grand Staircase is a work of art all its own. Built of Italian white marble and decorated with colorful stone accents, it was THE place to see and be seen at the opera.

Look familiar? If only we hadn't forgotten our ball gowns and masks!

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