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The de facto culture czar Pierre Boulez, left, with the architect Carlos Ott and a model of the Opéra Bastille in the 1980s.
The ornate grand foyer of the 19th-century Palais Garnier
The Opéra Bastille, the larger and more modern of the Paris Opera’s two theaters, turns 30 this year
Directors have to contend with the Bastille’s size; Dmitri Tcherniakov’s staging of “Les Troyens” this winter is one that succeeded.
The Place de la Bastille is a common beginning or end point for protests, including recent demonstrations by the Gilets Jaunes
I've never been to an opera there but remember walking past it on one of our trips to Paris. Regards, Len
Does Paris Still Have the Ugliest Opera House in Europe?
By Joshua Barone
Feb. 8, 2019
PARIS — The Opéra Bastille was a laughingstock before it was even built.
Turning 30 this year, the larger and more modern of the Paris Opera’s two theaters is widely regarded as one of the ugliest in Europe. And its comically embarrassing origin story — which even Stéphane Lissner, the company’s director, tells through chuckles — begins with a mistake.
The long-serving French president François Mitterrand ordered a new opera house to be built in the early 1980s as one of his Grands Projets, like the I.M. Pei-designed Louvre Pyramid and the Grande Arche of La Défense. After receiving more than 700 proposals, with the architects’ names kept hidden, Mitterrand and his aides chose a design they thought was by Richard Meier, then a star (and now disgraced).
The name that was unveiled was Carlos Ott, a relatively unknown Uruguayan-Canadian architect who didn’t have any major credits on his résumé. But Mitterrand moved forward with the project, committing to a behemoth that became the third-largest building in the city, after two other Grands Projets — the enormous Bibliothèque Nationale and the Ministry for the Economy and Finance.
Originally planned for the Parc de la Villette area on the outskirts of Paris — where Jean Nouvel’s Philharmonie concert hall opened in 2015 — the theater was moved to the Place de la Bastille, where the famous prison once stood. The location made sense for the opening date, meant to coincide with the 200th anniversary of the start of the French Revolution, when the prison was stormed by insurgents. And by the 1980s, the Bastille was a working-class area; this new opera house was conceived with a broadened public in mind.
On that front, the Opéra Bastille has been a success: The average age of its audience is nearly 10 years younger than that of the Metropolitan Opera, and it’s not unusual for the Paris Opera to sell out both the 19th-century Palais Garnier (its 2,000-seat house in the expensive center of town, now primarily home to ballet and small-scale opera) and the 2,700-seat Bastille.
“I think a lot of people don’t like the building,” Mr. Lissner said in an interview. “But the big majority today believes it was worth it, because a lot of people are able to go to the opera,” with more seats, and more diverse programming available.
But while the Bastille has been a blessing in some respects (it also provided a wealth of new spaces for rehearsals and workshops), it has been glumly tolerated and mocked for virtually all of its existence.
When the opera house opened in 1989, it wasn’t quite finished — along the way, concessions had been made, including the loss of a modular, or flexible, space desired by the influential composer and conductor Pierre Boulez, a de facto culture czar — and it didn’t even have a music director. In an article about the tumultuous days leading up to opening night, The New York Times repeated a common joke: “What is the difference between the Bastille Opera and the Titanic? The Titanic had an orchestra.”
Another comparison with the Titanic could be made with the Bastille’s appearance, which from certain angles resembles a cruise ship. But ask 10 people in Paris what the building looks like, and you’ll probably hear 10 different answers: hospital, swimming pool, government office, airport. Few, if any, would say it looks like an opera house.
The eminent French critic Christian Merlin, who attended the earliest productions at the Bastille, recalled in an interview finding the building “impressive but cold and gray, somewhat anonymous.” Mr. Lissner said it is “absolutely not convincing, aesthetically, from the outside.”
Inside is not much different. Even entering is a challenge: The door appears to be on the second floor, accessible by way of a grand staircase. But it’s rarely used, and newcomers are left to find the real entrance on the ground floor. (On a recent visit for the opening night of a new production of Berlioz’s “Les Troyens,” the stairs were closed off with bright yellow tape.) Despite the building’s size, the lobby spaces are narrow, crowded and brightly lighted; it is nearly impossible to make it through an entire intermission without getting pushed.
The theater itself, which occupies only about 5 percent of the building, is devoid of warmth: Its stone walls and fixtures have all the charm of a hotel convention center. (Mr. Ott, in a mid-2000s interview with the newsletter of the Institut François Mitterrand, said this was because he “didn’t want anything to detract from the performance.”) Balcony seats were designed to offer clear views of the stage — which they do, at the cost of some vertigo.
Singers and directors alike must contend with the cavernous space. Manuel Brug, a German critic who has been visiting the theater for years, said it is “not possible to be intimate” there. In “Les Troyens,” for example, only the mezzo-soprano Stéphanie d’Oustrac, as Cassandre, seemed at ease penetrating the orchestra and filling the hall. The production’s director, Dmitri Tcherniakov, overcame the Bastille’s dimensions by pushing the cityscape of Troy back extremely far, opening up the rear of the theater to give the set the depth of three stages.
“Everything has to always be big,” Mr. Brug said. “You have to have a kind of energy as a director that you don’t get swallowed by it.”
Compare this with the Palais Garnier, commissioned by Napoleon III and designed with neo-Baroque opulence. A visit there is a step out of modernity and into a fairy tale. Not an inch of the gilded grand foyer is left undecorated; the nearby Salon du Soleil is a magical space with facing mirrors that create the illusion of a candlelit abyss.
Inside the theater, which is densely packed with plush red seats, a monumental chandelier — the one that inspired the climax of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical “The Phantom of the Opera” — hangs from a ceiling magnificently painted by Chagall. The acoustics are forgiving, and conducive to jewel-box productions like a new staging of Scarlatti’s oratorio “Il Primo Omicidio,” which had its premiere the night before “Les Troyens.”
“When I walk into the Garnier,” Mr. Lissner said, “I walk into a theater.”
The Bastille was never meant to be an update of the Garnier — its populist mission aimed at shedding some of the Garnier’s perceived stuffiness — but Mr. Ott might have gone too far. Mr. Brug said the Bastille’s abundance of stone and metal, and harsh angles, has left it “so sober.”
It is also a victim of poor urban planning. The Garnier is a clearly defined anchor of the Place de l’Opéra; people walking out of the Métro station there are welcomed by a postcard-ready view of the facade. When you stand in the theater’s loggia, you can look down l’Avenue de l’Opéra to the Louvre. But the Bastille sits on more of an intersection than a plaza.
Place de la Bastille is a complicated roundabout with a columnar monument in the center. Given its history, the space is a common beginning or end point for demonstrations; on a recent Saturday, it was where Gilets Jaunes (“Yellow Vests”) protests converged, leading to the cancellation of a public dress rehearsal of “Rusalka” at the opera house.
“It’s a place for demonstrations mostly,” Mr. Brug said, “and for traffic jams.”
In this regard, the Opéra Bastille stands out among the Mitterrand-era Grands Projets. The Grande Arche is still very much the heart of La Défense, and the Louvre Pyramid has become one of Paris’s definitive landmarks. But the Bastille has never quite fit in, nor has it ever become more inviting.
“As it often happens in France, the maintenance was neglected,” Mr. Merlin said, adding that at the Bastille “it was a little bit embarrassing to see safety nets on the facade after only a few years in order to prevent tiles from falling down.”
There have been some improvement efforts. To celebrate the Paris Opera’s 350th anniversary, and the anniversary of the Bastille, this season, the company commissioned Claude Lévêque to create installations, collectively called “Saturnales,” for both its theaters. Light rods top the Bastille’s facade like a minimalist tiara; they can been seen from around the neighborhood.
And Mr. Lissner, after taking over the company in 2015, installed a large screen above the steps of the Bastille, where he keeps his primary office. (He spruced it up with furniture from the Garnier.) “When you are outside, you can’t tell what kind of building this is,” he said. “So I decided to put this screen outside to show the program and images of the opera.” Mr. Brug said that he typically wouldn’t be a fan of something like this, but conceded that it gives the building “a vitality.”
It’s unlikely the Bastille will change further any time soon, inside or out. Mr. Lissner said that would be difficult, and expensive. Mr. Merlin hopes that the acoustics will eventually be improved, “at any price.”
But the Paris Opera is planning a new space there — a modular one, as once promised to Boulez, with room for an audience of 800 — that is expected to open in 2023. After holding a competition, the company recently hired the Danish firm Henning Larsen Architects, known for the Copenhagen Opera House and the Harpa concert hall in Reykjavik.
This time, there was no mistake about whose design had been chosen.
https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/08/arts ... rsary.html
Barone has dropped the ball. The Opéra-Bastille's music director, appointed before it opened, was Daniel Barenboim, who recruited its orchestra. (His requirement that the bassoonists not play French instruments made him no friends in Paris.) He had a falling out with Miterrand because he wanted a gradual build-up of repertoire in the new house, while Miterrand wanted a full season from the start, so Barenboim either resigned or was fired, depending on what story you read. Wikipedia's article on the Opéra-Bastille gives other reasons which we didn't hear about at the time. He was quickly replaced by Myung-Whun Chung who conducted the opening performances. Neither conductor is mentioned in Barone's article.Joshua Barone wrote:When the opera house opened in 1989, it wasn’t quite finished ... and it didn’t even have a music director.
Yes, I wondered about that. Chung actually turned out to be quite good in the position, and lasted quite a while. He was trained at Juilliard by Jean Morel, so Chung made an excellent opera conductor.John F wrote: ↑Fri Feb 08, 2019 8:16 amBarone has dropped the ball. The Opéra-Bastille's music director, appointed before it opened, was Daniel Barenboim, who recruited its orchestra. (His requirement that the bassoonists not play French instruments made him no friends in Paris.) He had a falling out with Miterrand because he wanted a gradual build-up of repertoire in the new house, while Miterrand wanted a full season from the start, so Barenboim either resigned or was fired, depending on what story you read. Wikipedia's article on the Opéra-Bastille gives other reasons which we didn't hear about at the time. He was quickly replaced by Myung-Whun Chung who conducted the opening performances. Neither conductor is mentioned in Barone's article.Joshua Barone wrote:When the opera house opened in 1989, it wasn’t quite finished ... and it didn’t even have a music director.
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