Arguably, no monarch was more eager to take center stage than Louis XIV of France. And literally center stage. A seasoned dancer with the Ballets de la Cour, he danced some 80 roles, including the most famous of all, that of the rising sun in The Royal Ballet of the Night. It was a role the 15-year-old aspired to play throughout his reign, and he provided his nickname: The Sun King.
But although Louis, a theatre-goer, included plans for a grand opera in his ambitions to expand the Palace of Versailles, he did not live to see his musical dreams come true. It would therefore be up to his successor to attend the big curtain raiser. There was also an incentive to have it built. The theater had to be ready for the wedding of the Dauphin and Archduchess Marie Antoinette of Austria in 1770. Which was right.
Why was an opera built in Versailles?
It’s not that Versailles was without its performance spaces, but they lacked room for the kind of stage machinery needed for great opera and ballet performances. Lavish entertainment was housed in purpose-built pop-ups, spaces designed to be dismantled after use. And it wasn’t necessarily modest business either. The golden papier-mâché structure created for Molière’s creation George Dandin comfortably seated more than 1,000 spectators. For something more permanent, Louis XV turned to his favorite architect, Ange-Jacques Gabriel, who designed Place de la Concorde in Paris. Gabriel sent an assistant to see what Italy had to offer before settling on a semi-elliptical layout that offered maximum visibility and acoustic clarity.
When did work on the Royal Opera of Versailles begin?
Building work began in 1766 – the roof continued three years later while the lavish interior was completed just a month before the royal wedding. Apollo, god of the sun and god of music and dance, figured prominently in sculptor Augustin Pajou’s decorative scheme, with reliefs of opera characters to enliven the blues, golds and marbled wood of the walls. . To top it all off, a giant painting on the ceiling by Durameau depicting Apollo fashioning the crowns with which to honor “illustrious men of the arts”.
What was the first manufacture?
The first to christen the new theater and greet the newlyweds was Lully’s Perseus, a lavish production featuring 95 singers, 80 dancers, 15 soloists, an 80-piece instrumental group, five lavish sets and over 500 costumes. Coincidentally, it was written in 1682, the year Louis XIV made Versailles his official residence. It is believed that Lully’s opera was chosen to give Marie Antoinette a crash course in French operatic manners – after all, her inclinations favored Italian and German music and Voltaire warned not to” make her yawn”. A vain hope. A contemporary noted that “Madame la Dauphine does not seem to take pleasure in it”. And the beautifully appointed Baron Grimm deemed the play “beautifully boring”.
Included in the festivities, too, were Branchit is Castor and Pollux; dramas by Racine and Voltaire; and a specially composed ballet that was equally overlooked by the hard-to-please Baron: “wretched, absurd, boring and utterly ridiculous”. Perhaps he was more enthusiastic about the music chosen for the Comte d’Artois’ wedding three years later. Tastes changed. Lully and Rameau seemed increasingly old compared to Gossec, Grétry and Marie-Antoinette of yesteryear harpsichord teacher, Glück. Indeed Gluck Iphigenia in Aulide given in May 1782, and Armidatwo years later, will be the last two major productions to be staged before the revolution.
This was partly because the Royal Opera had never been intended as a repertory house with a changing procession of regular performances. It was a theater for the great days and the feasts of the court. And it had been designed to be versatile as a banquet hall and a ballroom. Neither designation was cheap. For stage performances, candles renewed ad infinitum light up the auditorium and the foyer while, hidden behind the shutters of the set, 3,000 oil lamps bathe the set in light. Musicians had to be brought in from Paris, with star singers often asking for “sweeteners”; and despite some clever machinery to raise the orchestra floor, a vast army of expensive carpenters was needed to reallocate the space for feasting and dancing.
Ironically, a banquet and an operatic aria conspired to seal the theater’s pre-revolutionary fate when, on October 1, 1789, the royal bodyguards hosted a dinner for the Flanders regiment – newly posted to Versailles to enhance palace security. Premonitory skeptical of ‘watching’ on the proceedings, the King, Queen and Dauphin were nonetheless present when cries of ‘long live the king’ accompanied an impromptu rendition of ‘O Richard, my king, the universe t ‘give up’ by Grétry. Richard Lion’s Heart. When the word came out, the aria becomes the rallying cry of the monarchists. The royal family, meanwhile, is brought back to Paris and the long march to the guillotine has begun.
What happened to the Royal Opera of Versailles during the French Revolution and the 19th century?
But what about Versailles and its now mothballed opera? In 1793, the revolutionary government decreed that all royal possessions in the palace would be auctioned off, and within a year everything from furniture to cooking utensils was parceled out into 17,000 lots. Abandoned buildings have become warehouses. And hidden in a secret cache under the orchestra, the musicians’ chairs and desks remained forgotten, to be rediscovered during later renovations.
Then begins the most eventful part of the history of the theater. It was only with the restoration of the monarchy that things began to improve. As part of his project to reinvent Versailles as a museum, a gift to the French people dedicated to “all the glories of France”, Louis-Philippe had the opera house redecorated and modernized. Additionally, a special opening gala hinted that the theater could resume operations. This was without counting the operating costs, which had not disappeared. A few glittering state banquets, including one for Queen Victoria and Prince Albert followed perhaps the only notable musical event of the period.
In 1844 Berlioz had chaired a concert for which he had brought together more than 1,000 artists and an audience eight times as many. Now he was convinced to conduct a performance at the Royal Opera. On October 29, 1848 (with a new revolution in the air), he brought together 400 musicians for a program of BeethovenGluck, Rossini and Weber. Without forgetting, there was the ‘Grande fête’ of Romeo and Julietthe Hungarian March and, for his own orchestration by Weber Invitation to dance, he hired 18 harpists. “The receipts”, he writes, “were enormous and we had to turn away 500 people”.
Turning away crowds eager to attend a performance was not going to be a problem for the next 100+ years, however, as things became mostly political. It was first the Franco-Prussian war during which the German army, besieging Paris, occupied the palace. With a nuanced sense of historical re-enactment, Prussian King William I had himself crowned Kaiser in the Grand Hall of Mirrors. And when the Germans left in 1871, the theater became the seat of the French Assembly, technically making Versailles the French capital until the reunification of the Assembly and Paris in 1879.
It wasn’t until after World War II that major renovations restored the theater to its original 1770 glory, restoring the original ceiling paint and color scheme. The ongoing restoration has continued into the 21st century with painstaking work behind the scenes.
It is a theater that has long fired the imagination of harpsichordist and director of Les Talens Lyriques, Christophe Rousset. He brought his grandmother to Versailles when he was ten years old to see Puccini Tosca. “Even as a child, I was fascinated by aesthetics,” he recalls. “It stirred my imagination wondering what had happened in the palace in the past. When you drive there you really touch the spirit of the place, and it touches you. And when I interpret Lully or Rameau, I I’m not relying on a purely musical experience. Everything about Versailles makes the music clear. It’s about the whole ambience, including the gardens. Just as you might notice a detail, a window or perhaps being a fireplace, so is music.You feel the size is just right for such fine music.
The Royal Opera House and the 21st Century
Over the past decade, the house has swung into action, clocking up more productions than in the previous 240 years combined. At the wheel of the new headliner of the Royal Opera, we find the director of the Château de Versailles Spectacle, Laurent Brunner. “A historic theater must be respected, he insists, and playing music since its construction seems essential to me. The Opéra de Versailles is the only theater whose program consists largely of music composed between the birth of opera and the French Revolution. Where other companies start with mozartI do the opposite, concocting programs that end with him. Versailles itself is a museum, but its Opera is a live performance venue. Formerly a plaything of kings, emperors and the State, the Royal Opera is a theater whose egalitarian hour has surely come.
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