As the Opéra National de Paris celebrates its 350th anniversary with a sumptuous season ranging from Alessandro Scarlatti Il Primo Omicidio (1707) through 19th century masterpieces such as Tristan and Isolda, Simon Boccanegraand The Trojansto Michael Jarrell’s new opera Bereniceit is important to remember that opera in Paris began outside the city center, at Louis XIV’s Palace of Versailles.
Louis XIV, known as the Sun King, wanted to have an opera at Versailles and went so far as to hire decorators and designate its location in the palace. For financial reasons, the house was not built during his lifetime and the court instead held an opera (and a ballet and theatre) at various locations on the palace grounds, including a palace drawing room and the stables . For these performances, temporary theaters would be built and then destroyed. During the reign of Louis XIV, despite the absence of opera, works by French composers, including Lully and others, were staged at Versailles.
Louis XV was less interested in the performing arts than his great-grandfather, but due to the traditions surrounding royal weddings, which included a ball, banquet and opera, he decided in 1768 to build an opera house . Its first architect, Jacques-Ange Gabriel, had been working on plans for an opera since his appointment in 1742, and voila! When the future Louis XVI married Marie-Antoinette in 1770, the Royal Opera had been built.
At the time it was the largest concert hall in Europe, with mechanical facilities that allowed it to be used as a ballroom and banquet hall as well as for opera, theater and ballet performances . When the room was configured as a ballroom, the dance floor stretched from the entrance to the back of the stage, approximately 45 meters, and for the time it had the most modern mechanical systems.
In the 250 years since the theatre’s opening, it has been damaged and restored several times: stripped of its decorations and furnishings during the French Revolution, it was restored by order of Louis Philippe I, King of France from 1830 to 1848, when he transformed Versailles from a royal palace into a national museum. Later in the 19th century, the opera became a meeting hall used by the Senate of the French Third Republic; alterations to the building included the installation of a canopy.
Badly damaged during the Second World War, the Royal Opera House was restored again in the 1950s, but this restoration removed much of what remained of the 18th century stage machinery and installed a disfiguring fire wall and a iron Curtain. In the most recent restoration work, carried out between 2007 and 2009, the 1950s wall and curtain were removed, lighting and other systems were updated, and restoration work was carried out on the remaining mechanisms from the 18th century.
Today, the theater is a tiny, beautiful working opera house. Since 2009, Versailles has experienced a revival of musical performances under the aegis of the Château de Versailles Spectacles, not only at the opera, but at the Royal Chapel, which the Sun King succeeded in having built during his reign. Unsurprisingly, the focus is on music from before 1800. The current season, the 10th, includes stage performances by Marc-Antoine Charpentier Acteon in double program with Jean-Philippe Rameau Pygmalionby Henry Purcell king arthur and Dido and AeneasJohn Gay’s The Beggar’s Operaby Francesco Sacrati La Finta Pazzaby Giovanni Legrenzi The division of the worldand more, plus Handel concerts Rinaldoby Berlioz The Damnation of Faustseveral operas and many other works.
All this under the direction of Laurent Brunner, director of shows at Versailles since 2007, when he was appointed to this post by the former Minister of Culture, Jean-Jacques Aillagon. This is a huge achievement, especially since Château de Versailles Spectacles is not an opera company and, surprisingly, does not receive any public subsidies.
On a recent visit to France, I had the chance to meet and chat with Brunner and be taken on a tour of the Opera House and Royal Apartments by Maxime Ohayon, Director of Development. Ohayon’s work is very similar to that of development managers in the United States: fundraising, working with donors and other supporters of a nonprofit organization, etc.
I spoke with Brunner in the opera itself, a tiny and very beautiful baroque theater that includes a large private box for the king and a beautifully painted ceiling.
Brunner told me that Spectacles doesn’t currently have the budget to start its own opera company. The organization has no costume designers or set designers on staff, for example, nor is there an in-house orchestra. Next season they will be behind two productions, but overall they are a co-producer and broadcaster, working with outside music organizations to bring performances to Versailles.
These organizations come from everywhere. Opera Lafayette, of Washington, DC, a company specializing in French Baroque opera, performed at Versailles in 2012 and 2014. Czech ensemble Collegium 1704 presented a program by Lully’s Te Deum and Heinrich Biber Missa Salisburgensis at the palace in 2018. This year, William Christie and Les Arts Florissants, Avi Stein and Juilliard415, Vincent Dumestre and Le Poème Harmonique, and other groups are among the performing organizations. Former solo artists include Joyce DiDonato, Barbara Hendricks, Sonya Yoncheva, Philippe Jaroussky, Bryn Terfel, Roberto Alagna, Jordi Savall and Natalie Dessay.
Brunner commented on how the ancient music scene has changed over time. “The younger generation is amazing. They have 50 years of show history to build on. We have artists like [countertenor and conductor] Raphaël Pichon, who is 34 years old. And people are much more familiar with early music now. It’s the same with some contemporary music. In the 1960s, Britten was unknown [in France] and considered too difficult, but this is no longer the case. Young musicians know him. He mentioned the Beaune International Baroque Festival, which has presented more than 75 Baroque operas since its creation in 1982.
Another achievement of Brunner’s time at Versailles was the creation of a new label, also called Château de Versailles Spectacles, which released its first recordings last year. These recordings, all made at Versailles, include the work of Charpentier Les Arts Florissans (CD), performed by the Ensemble Marguerite Louise; a mass by Cavalli performed by the Galilei Consort; a DVD of Praetorius Christmas mass, performed by the Gabrieli Consort and Players; and more.
My visit to Versailles ended with a wonderful concert at the Royal Chapel by the young countertenor Valer Sabadus and the Concerto Köln. Mixing instrumental music and tunes by Vivaldi, Handel, Porpora, Giacomelli and Caldara, this program was as good as it gets. Sabadus has a beautiful voice, superb musicianship and a natural dramatic flair that allowed him to embody the emotions of every word of the lyrics he sang. Concerto Köln, led by its first violins rather than a conductor, played with full sound, enthusiasm and great virtuosity.