Opera in Paris

Paris has several halls where music can be heard. In the center, you will
find the Old venerable “Palais Garnier”, the Opera House build
under Napoleon the third as well as the new OpÈra-Bastille, both ran under
the leadership of GÈrard Mortier. Not far from these is the “ThÈatre du
Chatelet” which beginning from this year, is run by JC Choplin. The
Orchestre de Paris and the Nouvel Orchestre Philharmonique, Christoph
Eschenbach and Myung-wung Cung’s Orchestra will resume their
residencies at the “Salle Pleyel”. Further East in the elegant
and glitzy Avenue Montaigne is the “ThÈatre des Champs-ElysÈes”,
better known as the place where Stravinsky’s Rite was created. It is a
hall of the right size for chamber music or piano recitals, but where the
Vienna Philharmonic comes three times per year and which will usually produce
two or three Operas as well. There are other less known smaller places where
interesting programs can be heard but I will leave them out in this

In recent years, the Paris orchestra was exiled in the “ThÈatre
Mogador”, not far from the Galeries Lafayette. This hall was usually
used for musicals and was an artistic disaster—musicians could not hear
themselves well which is the basis for crafting good ensembles, nor could
they have a regular place for rehearsals. This is over as the Salle Pleyel
will officially reopen this week. It has been renovated and early impressions
are very positive. Be aware though, that in order to improve the acoustics,
the capacity has been reduced to less than 2 000 seats. Concerts with the
Berlin Philharmonic under Rattle, the London Symphony Orchestra under Haitink
and Gergiev are nearly sold out.

The ThÈatre du Chatelet used to be for several decades Paris’s most
exciting place. It used to be run by StÈphane Lissner who now runs La Scala,
no less, and Jean-Pierre Brossman who has retired this year. Both managed the
near impossible: develop a faithful audience as well as secure long-lasting
relations with some strong artists who would come regularly on the strength
of the working conditions. This is the place which could boast ambitious
programs at full capacity: New works by Peter Eˆtvˆs, John Adams, Luciano
Berio, … , a Strauss Festival with Dohnanyi and the Philharmonia
Orchestra from London, Rattle conducting Janacek with his Birmigham
Orchestra, Barenboim coming with his Berlin Ensemble for some superb Strauss,
Beethoven and Wagner, Minkowski reinventing Offenbach, Paris’s last
Ring and the first ever complete Troyens with
Gardiner’s ensemble, month-long regular visits of the Mariinsky under
Gergiev up to Baroque Operas. The Orchestral and recital season was also very
strong and to make things even better, price ranges was wide, this enabling
everyone to come at all budgets.

This seems sadly a thing of the past. The new administrator, Jean-Luc
Choplin has made a first season whose new major production is the outdated
Lopez operetta The singer from Mexico. There are other works by Rock
composers or other operettas. The only real work is Pascal Dusapin Opera
about Faust. The Orchestral season has been given away to Pleyel. In
other words, this is a musical disaster.

This positions the Paris OpÈra as the clear leader for years to come.
GÈrard Mortier in his third year, has put his mark on what Verdi used to call
the old house. It is now clearly Mortier’s place. Do not come to expect
extravagant Metropolitan-like productions of La BohËme with big
names singers, expect to be challenged by thoroughly rehearsed productions
with the artists that Mortier has always worked with: Singers like Angela
Denoke, Christine Sch‰fer, Jose van Dam, … conductors like Sylvain
Cambreling, ValÈry Gergiev, Kent Nagano, … as well as producers like
Peter Sellars, Luc Bondy, the Hermanns, ..

All that Mortier touches does not turn to gold: last year’s
Cardillac did not manage to convince that it was a work worth
resurrecting. The staging of Simon Boccanegra by the Dutch
avant-garde producer Johan Simons as well as of Don Giovanni by
Cannes Festival winner Michael Haneke were disappointing, …, however,
there is always something to enjoy: Denoke as Cardillac’s daughter was
superb and Boccanegra’s principals: Carlos Alvarez, Anna-Maria
Martinez, Stefano Secco and Ferrucio Furlanetto could rival memories of La
Scala’s Paris visit in the 70s. When Mortier gets things right, they
are very very right: Two seasons ago, the Tristan staged by Peter
Sellars, conducted in the spirit of Debussy by Esa-Pekka Salonen; and, with
Ben Heppner and Waltraud Meier, this is the sort of evening that shows what
an outstanding unique performance the OpÈra can be.

Mortier has also taken some important initiatives:

  • He has worked on the acoustics of the Bastille by raising the orchestra
    which now is balanced better with the singers.
  • A last minute ticket scheme similar to Vienna has been created where 5
    € can be bought on the day. Come early and be sure to enter.
  • Finally, he runs some fascinating conferences for every production with
    the artists where he proves to be a fascinating speaker. If you can
    understand French, look for these. They can be revelations.

The “ThÈatre des Champs-ElysÈes” pales by comparison. It has
less coherence in its programming from either Pleyel or the Paris OpÈra. It
hosts however the French National Radio Orchestra whose director is Kurt
Masur. Should Anna Netrebko give a recital with her frequent singing partner,
Rolando VillazÛn. Do not think of finding a ticket, it is sold out. The key
event should be at the end of the season a staged Pelleas with
Madalena Kozena conducted by Bernard Haitink, who has already done several
seasons ago this work in concert performance of which several French National
Orchestra players were quoted saying this was the highlight of their

In the end, if you come to Paris, look for programs carefully, there are
many events happening. However, if you just have one place to go and want to
experience something uniquely Parisian, go to Bastille or to Garnier. It is a
safe bet that whatever will be performed is likely to be original,
forward-looking and always stimulating.

Antoine Leboyer

(PS: this piece was written on September 11. As Opera Today’s
readers are mostly American, I, like all of us here in France, want to join
you in remembrance of this tragic day that no one will ever forget.)

image_description=Paris OpÈra