A Taste of Bordeaux

ALISON CULLIFORD admires the breathtaking beauty of France's Grand Théâtre de Bordeaux.

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Bordeaux's eighteenth-century opera house, designed by Victor Louis
© Grand Hôtel de Bordeaux & Spa
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The opera house's main staircase, an inspiration for Charles Garnier's staircase at the Paris Opéra
© Frédéric Desmesure 2012
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Statues representing the nine Muses adorn the exterior of the Grand Théâtre de Bordeaux
© Grand Hôtel de Bordeaux & Spa 2012

Bordeaux lies low and golden beside the wide Gironde, its pale limestone façades bathed in light from unfolding clouds. When Claude-Joseph Vernet painted it in 1758, the very same scene greeted thousands of ships returning laden with spices from the West Indies. But in the intervening years it was not always so. The splendid city of today is the work of several decades of renovation that peeled away the dark encrusted dirt to achieve UNESCO World Heritage status in 2007. Wine guru Robert Parker remarked on the transformation the following year: "I remember the old days and the rotten, abandoned buildings on the waterfront, now a ravishing destination."

A destination not just for wine-lovers but for opera aficionados, the city contains one of the oldest wooden-frame opera houses in Europe, now home to the Opéra National de Bordeaux. Written into its timbers, stone colonnades and ceiling frescos are the labyrinthine and sometimes inglorious stories of this powerful city. Built partly on the proceeds of slave trading, the Opéra was partly constructed using shipbuilding techniques, revealed in the dome above the stage — now a practice studio — that looks like a ship's hull turned upside down. The building briefly became the home of the French parliament in 1870–71, when Victor Hugo made a prescient speech about European integration. But most of all it is a testament to one man's vision, pursued against the odds, of an architectural master plan that evoked the values of ancient Greece — harmony, beauty and the elevation of the arts.

In the mid-eighteenth century, the governor of Guyenne was Louis-François-Armand de Vignerot du Plessis, Maréchal-Duc de Richelieu. A cultured man and a libertine (who is believed to be the model for Valmont in Les Liaisons Dangereuses), Richelieu wanted to build a new theater to replace one that burnt down in 1755, but not just any theater: it was to be a "temple of the arts" and jewel in the crown of a city to rival Paris. 

Pleased with his hôtel particulier in Paris, Richelieu called on the same architect and fellow freemason, Victor Louis. Echoing the machinations of regional politics today, the plan eventually fell afoul of the locals, as well as Louis XVI's intendant, Turgot, who took a dim view of the arcane financing and tried to cancel it. With this new king on the throne and Richelieu in disgrace, Victor Louis himself pleaded for the resurrection of the project and put his own funds into completing it. His reward was to be persona non grata at the grand opening in 1780. 

The difficulties of tearing up the Gallo-Roman temple foundations on the site used up all of Richelieu's and Victor Louis's funds, and the opera house adopted a financing model based on London's Vauxhall Gardens: shares were issued to rich private individuals, who could then lease out shopfronts in the cloisters. The Grand Théâtre thus became a theater of life, with courtesans, coffee-shops and sideshows. At the time, Place de la Comédie was level with the Grecian-temple-like opera house, and nobles could dismount from their carriages and walk straight in. As performances were held in daylight, they would then be plunged into the half-light of the limestone vestibule before ascending, bathed in light from the soaring oculus, up the grand staircase — to be admired, first from behind, then in aquiline profile, by the proletariat below. As they entered the candlelit wooden auditorium, the curtain had already risen on the spectacle of the ancien régime.

Something seems familiar about this staircase. A century later, Charles Garnier used it as his model for the Paris Opéra. And if by that time it was the bourgeoisie on display, Bordeaux's Grand Théâtre remains an evocation of a golden age. In 1990–91, the auditorium was painstakingly restored to its original colors of pale blue and gold. If you're sitting on the far right-hand side of the gods (not recommended for viewing a performance), you can discreetly prise open a secret compartment where the original paintwork was taken down to its first incarnation — billows of blue trompe l'oeil festoons above a dim faux marbling — which has been reproduced without the centuries of encrusted candle soot above the corridor doorways to the right. 

Since acquiring Thierry Fouquet as director in 1996, the Opéra has steadily increased its critical and audience appreciation, thanks to Fouquet's policy of reducing the operetta repertoire and producing major works. The company acquired national status in 2002, a designation that includes the prerogative of presenting the premieres of French compositions. Philippe Fénelon's Les Rois in 2004 was a resounding success. Great artists including Plácido Domingo, Cecilia Bartoli, Natalie Dessay and Renaud Capuçon, as well as choreographers Carolyn Carlson and Angelin Preljocaj, have followed in the footsteps of Marius Petipa, Marie Taglioni and Mirella Freni. Fouquet prides himself on bringing a young audience into the theater, and also on nurturing young artists, who can develop their repertoire in this manageable-sized auditorium. "I'm very keen on the American approach to musical training," he says, and the company regularly scouts in New York and California for its soloists, who this season include Lisa Karen Houben, Jacquelyn Wagner and Trevor Scheunemann. Fouquet regrets that the expense of running a permanent chorus, orchestra and corps de danse precludes presenting as many specialized Baroque productions as he would like, and that the Wagner repertoire has had to be neglected, though this will be put to rights once a larger partner venue, L'Auditorium, opens in 2013.

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Bordeaux's Jardin des Quais
© Office de Tourisme de Bordeaux/T. Sanson 2012

A weekend in Bordeaux planned around a performance gives a visitor the chance to immerse herself in the grandeur of an operatic setting that extends beyond the theater itself. Stepping out in full gala attire is no problem when one only has to cross the square from the Grand Hôtel. Built by Victor Louis as a private residencethat mirrored the neoclassical architecture of the opera house, it has been magnificently restored and opened as a palace hotel in 2007. The Zeffirellian sumptuousness of Jacques Garcia's Second Empire-inspired decor extends through the enfilade of public rooms, spacious bedrooms and the exquisite Nuxe spa, where, lounging on daybeds beside the black mosaic pool surrounded by Pompeian columns, one is subsumed inside an Ingres painting — a masterly illusion. The Michelin-starred Pressoir d'Argent is Bordeaux's finest restaurant, and the hotel's four Clefs d'Or concierges can open the doors to the grands crus châteaux, organizing private visits and lunches with the proprietors. 

The opera's own restaurant, Café Opéra, has historic surroundings and taste galore on the plate. We loved magret de canard with lobster sauce. The café has pre- and post-opera menus, and one can also slip away for pre-ordered entr'acte champagne and petits fours away from the madding crowd. British owner Colum Crichton-Stuart, who has carved out quite a niche in the Bordeaux restaurant scene, also has the Orangerie in the Jardin Public — a bucolic setting for breakfast, lunch or brunch. Another gastronomic highlight is the bistro La Tupina in the St. Croix quartier near the Pont de Pierre. Since being named "Best Bistro in the World" by the International Herald Tribune, La Tupina has hosted presidents and stars, but it remains a cozy, old-world bistro with enormous charm. Home-cured hams and meats spit-roasting on the eighteenth-century fireplace perfume the air, and in winter soup warms in a cauldron. La Tupina's owner, Jean-Pierre Xiradakis, has recently added a chambres d'hôtes across the cobbled street, Maison Fredon, which combines designer furniture, artworks, flea-market finds and collections of what he calls art modest — starlet figurines arranged under a glass table, a collection of kitsch Vallauris clamshell ornaments or Daum crystal vases.

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One of the city's efficient trams
© Office de Tourisme de Bordeaux/T. Sanson 2012

Everything is within easy reach on foot or via the efficient, virtually silent tram system. The center of Bordeaux is all but free of cars — perhaps one reason all the Bordelais one sees cycling and walking around seem to have contented smiles on their faces. The Tourist Board's expert historical guides will point out the detail of this beautifully constructed city — a caryatid here, a mascaron there and a fascinating stained-glass church window featuring an African with the Madonna. But make time, too, for flânerie — the French art of wandering on foot without a particular place to go, but with an open mind to encounters. To the north of the opera house, past the monument to the Girondin reformers massacred during the Terror, you will find the Chartrons quartier with the elegant Jardin Public, an eighteenth-century garden re-landscaped in the English style. Just to the east is the CAPC contemporary art museum, whose world-class exhibitions are staged in a nineteenth-century colonial warehouse. 

In the old town, the Musée des Beaux-Arts, behind the Palais Rohan, is partly closed for renovation until September, but the Musée d'Aquitaine, in the former university on Cours Pasteur, is well worth visiting for an understanding of Bordeaux's world view at the time of the Opéra's incarnation. As well as Montaigne's tomb, you will find a well thought out and at times painful exhibition on slavery. With this in mind, watching the acclaimed chef d'orchestre Kwamé Ryan take his bow under the opera house's politically incorrect ceiling, with its slave depictions, is quite moving.

The quays, now landscaped by Michel Corajoud into what seem at first glance to be market gardening plots but bear only flowers, are a popular place to walk as the heat of the summer arrives. In front, on the Bourse, between April and October the celebrated miroir d'eau plays out its own choreography, flooding a shallow plain with water that then disappears and rises in a poetic mist inspired by Venice in winter. In June, alternating every year with a regatta, the quays are lined with wine-tastings as part of Bordeaux Fête le Vin, to which the Opéra's orchestra also contributes an open-air concert or two amid fireworks, son et lumière and other festivities. The opera season runs until June 24 (dance until July 12) and begins again in late September. Emblematic of the city's golden age, Bordeaux's opera house tells a story rich in drama and political intrigue, in which the tragedy of human bondage is followed by the triumph of Enlightenment. spacer 

ALISON CULLIFORD lives in Paris. She contributes to The Times of London, Time Out and Sunday Times Travel Magazine.

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