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Palais Garnier

Charles Garnier

alias Paris Opéra, Opéra de Paris, Opéra Garnier
history of the theatresupplementtechnical dataHistoric equipment

Important events

(detail)1875 | Opening



The Paris opera dates back to the period of the Second Empire. The opulent and ostentatious design corresponds to the era. The interiors contain large amounts of gold and velvet. The communication parts of the building, including the staircases and promenade spaces are of very high quality. The opera holds 2,200 spectators and up to 450 performers at a time. The ceiling of the hall, created by Marc Chagall in the year 1964, destroyed irreparably the original paint work and is the subject of a special contention. The decision that Paris should have a new opera house worthy of the capital of France—one that would be the consummation of all that had gone before, a monument of architecture, a focus of city planning, a splendid setting for sculpture and painting, a shrine of opera and ballet—had been taken as early as 1840, but it was not until Napoleon III and Baron Haussman had begun their wholesale building programme in the 1858 that any practical move was made. Although a design by the resident Opera architect already existed, it was announced at the end of 1860 that the project would be thrown open to a public competition. The idea is thought to have been the Empress Eugenie's, who expected her favourite, Viollet-le-Duc, to win. The time allowed was a single month, yet by 31 January 1861, 171 entries had been received. From the most promising a short list of five names was made, and to the Empress's annoyance Viollet-le-Duc's was not among them. His design, indeed, was a banal work, partly no doubt because the style had to be classical instead of his preferred neo-Gothic. The five successful competitors were asked to submit more detailed plans by the end of another two months. Two of them declined to go on. At the end of May, the name of the winner was announced—Charles Garnier, a promising but almost unknown young man of thirty-one. Garnier came from a poor family, and as a student had actually helped to support himself by working in Viollet-le-Duc's office for seventy-five centimes an hour. In 1848 he won the much coveted Grand Prix de Rome, and spent four years in Italy, visiting also Sicily, Greece and Constantinople. But in the eight years that had elapsed since his return he had failed to make his mark, and was finding it hard even to support himself. Victory in the competition elevated him to a height to which he was not accustomed. The story of his first visit to the Tuileries to show his plans to the royal couple is thus told by a friend: 'The Empress had a dry, dissstisfied manner, and a brusque tone, and as the Emperor was saying politely, "Very good, very good . . . beautiful", she broke in bitterly: "What style is it in? It's not in any style at all! It's not Greek, not Louis XIV, not even Louis XV!" "No", said Charles, "those are styles of the past. This is the Napoleon III style. Are you complaining about that?"— "The stage is too big, the auditorium is too small"—"But one has to leave space for the decoration and the sets . . . And the human voice has its limits", said Charles; "if the auditorium were bigger, who could make himself heard in it, and where would you find the crowds to fill it?" Charles' tone was becoming rather sharp, that of the Empress had been so from the beginning. The Comte de Cardaillac took Charles by the sleeve and said sotto voce, "Keep calm." The Emperor was smiling quietly behind his moustache . . . Approaching Charles he said very softly, "Pray don't get upset, she understands nothing".'


Work began on the building almost at once but progressed slowly. A year was spent draining a pond that was found to be under the foundations. It was not until 1867 that the south front was unveiled. The whole exterior was complete by 1869, but the interior was still unfinished when war broke out in 1870. During the war it was used as a warehouse. The two sieges of Paris and the terrible destruction that took place during the Commune made it out of the question to continue with it straight away. The fact that work was resumed and brought to a triumphant conclusion in January 1875 owes much to Garnier's own energy and administrative ability.


The opening night was a psychological boost to the whole of Paris, a sign that the dark days were over. A varied collection of European notables was assembled for the occasion, including, besides the president of the new republic, the Lord Mayor of London, the King of Spain and his mother, the King of Hanover, and the Burgomaster of Amsterdam. Garnier's masterpiece, indeed, was built as a symbol of national glory, and has always functioned as such. Its record as an opera house is depressing, but as a flamboyant gesture, as an expression of its age, as an unquenchable assertion of gaiety, optimism and eternal youth, it has a place in the affections of the world. When Gamier said 'C'est du Napoleon II' he was doing himself no more than justice. In terms of its professed purpose, the Opera is an extremely competent building. Standing free on all sides, its exterior form clearly expresses the divisions of the interior. The rectangular block in the front is the foyer and grand staircase; the central dome is the auditorium; the two flanking domes are the library and the entrance of the head of state; the large cubic mass behind that is the stage; and the block at the back is the artists' and administrative quarters. The spectator's progress from the pavement of the Place de 1'Opera to his seat in the auditorium is an exhilarating experience—destined, possibly, to be his most exhilarating experience of the evening. He passes first through one of the arches of the facade, a vast polychrome composition which bears witness to Garnier's studies in Baroque Rome as well as to his talent for invention. Rich it undoubtedly is, but its richness does not get out of control. The carved decoration, contributed by a host of sculptors, was carefully worked out in advance by Gamier, who gave each the dimensions required and a rough silhouette of what he had in mind. The ornamental details both of this facade and of the rest of the exterior can be a constant source of surprise, if not always of pleasure—the 'rostral' columns, for instance, bearing gas lamps and placards announcing the performances, which are ringed by the spiked prows of antique boats; or the lateral entrances which have giant caryatid figures holding laurel branches over the doors, topped by the imperial eagle.


Inside, the whole length of the fafade is occupied by the Grand Vestibule, the central three bays of which lead into the Grand Staircase, the Escalier d'Honneur. On either side are subsidiary staircases, while if one goes down instead of up, one reaches a large circular waiting room directly underneath the auditorium. Both the Grand Staircase and the circular waiting room are derived from Victor Louis, the first from Bordeaux, the second from his Parisian Theatre National—debts which Gamier cheerfully acknowledged. Circulation, supply of tickets and what the French call controles (barriers to check the tickets) are extremely well managed and there is never a feeling of congestion. The tiers of the auditorium, almost all divided into boxes, are reached from wide corridors running behind them. Services included cloakrooms, washrooms and lavatories in greater abundance than was usual in the 1870s, a reasonable ventilation system, a doctor's surgery, a bookshop, library, flower shop, even—most modern of innovations—an electric lift. Electricity was also used for the lighting (i.e. arc-lights, not incandescent bulbs, which were not used in the theatre until the i88os) and Garnier installed a small generating plant beneath the Grand Staircase. When mains electricity became available he thankfully gave this up: not only were the vibrations endangering the marble columns but the water being pumped up from the wells underneath was slowly sucking up the subsoil with it. The Grand Staircase, which is the showpiece of the whole design, is closely based on the Bordeaux staircase, but to compare the two is to become painfully aware of the change in taste between 1770 and 1870. Everything has grown bigger, tougher, more bulbous. The stairs them-selves, and their treads, and the balconies between the columns, curve voluptuously; spaces are deepened and enriched by mouldings and colours; on either side of the main flight, punctuated at its beginning by groups of agitated statuary, stairs leading downwards create a new dimension.


The Grand Foyer, which occupies the piano nobile of the south front (the position taken by small concert rooms in some earlier French theatres), is a room of palatial splendour, gleaming with mirrors, marbles, chandeliers, gilt and statuary. On the east side, under one of the pairs of flanking cupolas, are the apartments of the head of state—a separate entrance with quarters for guards, valets and aides-de-camp. This was among the requirements of the competition and was due to the fact that Napoleon III had only just escaped being assassinated as he was entering the main entrance of the old Opera. Neither Napoleon nor Eugenie, of course, ever entered the new one. The auditorium also derives from Louis' Theatre National. Although pulled down in 1820, the interior of this building had been reproduced in the earlier Opera in the rue le Peletier, built by Debret and much admired by Garnier (it was destroyed in 1873). Four huge arches resting on coupled columns form the basic structure. The columns are Corinthian, and the arches above them are carried on flying angels. In general, however, Garnier tried not to allow the Salle to rival the foyer in brilliance, his theory being that the spectators ought to feel themselves in un milieu artistique et meme grandiose, but should not be distracted by the decor from the actual events on the stage. (One has to remember that all through this period most of the house lights remained on during performances.) The ceiling, from the centre of which hangs the famous chandelier, was painted by Lenepveu with Apollo, Venus, the Muses, the hours of the day and night, beauty, love, song, etc., etc.


In 1964 Andre Malraux was inspired to install a new ceiling by Marc Chagall, whose dreamy innocent figures and scraps of background are agreeable enough but totally inappropriate to their setting. It is painted on canvas and has been fixed in front of the old ceiling so it can, if desired, eventually be taken away again. The stage half of the building has its own entrance, leading into a gallery that is a minor version of the Grand Vestibule. Each department has its own quarters, including a police station, three concierges and a fire-brigade. The rehearsal room for the ballet, the Foyer de Danse, is nearly as big as the stage, and as richly decorated as any of the public rooms.


In: Tidworth, Simon : Theatres: An Illustrated History. London 1973 p. 157 - 164



Author: Simon Tidworth

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