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Double Celebration

The Paris Opera embraces its future and its storied past. 
By Sylvia L’Écuyer 

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Claude Lévêque’s tiara for the Bastille
© ADAGP Claude Lévêque
“The Paris Opera is a city within a city.” —VINCENT HUGUET

THE OPÉRA NATIONAL DE PARIS celebrates a double anniversary in 2019. It has been 350 years since the company was founded by letters patent of Louis XIV and thirty years since the inauguration of the Bastille Opera House. At the center of the celebrations for the world’s oldest continuously operating opera company is director Vincent Huguet, a rising star in the opera world. Huguet, who will make his official debut at the Paris Opera in 2020 with his staging of Manon, launched the festivities in January 2018 with a gala evening at the company’s historic old opera house, the Palais Garnier, and closed out the year with a second celebratory program at the Garnier, on New Year’s Eve.

Trained as an art historian, Huguet worked as an editor at Gallimard, a leading French book publisher, and was a radio commentator for France Culture before meeting French theater legend Patrice Chéreau in 2008. Huguet was Chéreau’s assistant for the premiere of a new Elektra production in Aix-en-Provence in 2013 and, after Chéreau’s death, directed Elektra revivals at La Scala, the Metropolitan Opera and in Helsinki, Barcelona and Berlin. When I spoke with Huguet a few days before the New Year’s Eve gala, he told me what an exciting challenge these two events were for him.

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Bryan Hymel at the New Year’s Eve Gala
© Svetlana Loboff/Opéra National de Paris

“The Paris Opera is a city within the city. Its presence is felt even by those who do not attend any performances there. I wanted to tell the story of the ageless Palais Garnier, with its legends, its fantasms, its ghosts, its undergrounds, its roofs, its eclectic architecture, which inspired many other opera houses. There is more to this mythical site than in Gaston Leroux’s novel [The Phantom of the Opera].” Huguet obviously believes the Palais Garnier is a major opera star in its own right. For his New Year’s Eve gala, he chose at times to fill the entire back of the stage with dramatized video projections of the building’s most celebrated architectural features, from the Grand Escalier and the famed Chagall ceiling to the flamboyant winged sculptures crowning its roof. He also paid tribute to the company’s legendary art department, displaying architectural models, lavish costumes and models of set designs, showcasing the artisans’ craft. 

On the night of the gala, the stage was graced by an international trio of stars, all of whom have won the hearts of Parisian audiences in recent years—Bulgarian soprano Sonya Yoncheva, American tenor Bryan Hymel and Marseille-born baritone Ludovic Tézier. The program included arias from Thaïs and Don Carlos—two operas that have belonged to the Paris Opera since their premieres there—as well as excerpts from Werther, Carmen, Faust, Manon, La Traviata and Hérodiade. The beloved duet from Les Pêcheurs de Perles was an unorthodox choice—Bizet’s early opera belongs to the repertoire of the Opéra-Comique and had never before been staged at the Garnier.

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A “Saturnale” at the Garnier
© Christophe Pelé/Opéra National de Paris

Huguet’s sober, minimalist staging may not have offered the full party glitz one had expected for such an occasion. In our conversation, Huguet lamented that La Juive, Fromental Halévy’s lavish grand opéra à la française, had been nixed for the 2018 gala because of its unfamiliarity to modern audiences. La Juive has a particularly rich history with the company: the opera had its premiere at the Opéra de Paris in 1835 and was chosen to inaugurate the Palais Garnier in 1875. However, the cultural-television channel ARTE’s producer François-René Martin, who had a mandate to attract a wide audience with the live New Year’s Eve broadcast of the gala, decided that Halévy’s dark masterpiece wouldn’t fit the bill.

Though ballet was also on the bill, French critics regretted that neither the full corps de ballet nor the chorus for the Opéra performed live at the event. The spectacular opening number, an explosive rendition of Carmen’s March of the Toreadors, was projected onstage in a version filmed before the event featuring the chorus magnificently deployed on the Grand Escalier.

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Ludovic Tézier at the gala
© Svetlana Loboff/Opéra National de Paris

A full bouquet of anniversary celebrations will be on offer in Paris throughout 2019 at venues such as the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, the Centre Pompidou and Musée d’Orsay. Visual artist Claude Lévêque was commissioned to create spectacular visual effects for the city’s two major opera houses. Lévêque designed a giant tiara for the roof of the Bastille and has also fashioned striking enhancements to the architectural features of the Palais Garnier. These installations,called “Saturnales,” are meant to evoke Verlaine’s Poèmes Saturniens, as well as the celebratory ancient Roman Saturnalia festival of the winter solstice. “Saturnales” installations at the Palais Garnier, comprising two large golden tractor tires mounted on the grand staircase and searchlights roaming over the lower rooms, are considerably more restrained than their ancient Roman counterparts. spacer 

Sylvia L’Écuyer,  a musicologist and broadcaster, is host and producer of Radio-Canada’s IciMusique.



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