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Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Palais Garnier

Palais Garnier (Paris Opera) 1861-75, Charles Garnier
Charles Garnier, architect.
One of the greatest regrets I had in visiting Paris a couple years ago was in not finding the time (somehow) to tour the Palais Garnier, better known as the Paris Opera House. I'm not sure what I might have skipped in doing so (possibly the Pompidou Center), but that magnificent Beaux Arts architectural master-piece from the mid-19th-century remains high on my "bucket list," of sights I'd like to see in that city. Among its other distinctions it holds the distinction of having been named after its architect, Charles Garnier, even though he had to wait until 1989, and only then because France built a new opera house to replace his--the Opéra Bastille, Paris (below), which op-ened in 2012. The Palais Garnier had gone through two other name changes. Its first was Académie Nationale de Musique--Théâtre de l'Opéra. It was renamed the Théâtre National de l'Opéra de Paris in 1978.
Opéra Bastille, Paris, 2012. Parisian tastes in architecture
have changed some in the past 150 years or so.
Fortunately, the Palais Garnier still stands and continues to house performances. Its survival is thanks to a public that still refers to it as the Paris Opera. Today the Paris Opera (whichever name you prefer) is considered one of the most important structures in Paris. Originally seating 2,200, the Opera House, was the successor to the Théâtre de l'Académie Royale de Musique, which burned down in 1873. It is a prime example of the Beaux-Arts architecture movement, drawing on the 17th century Classical Italian Baroque style, emphasizing drama, grandeur, and symmetry. The new Opera House was commissioned during the reconstruction brought on by Napoleon III and his civic planner Baron Housemann, who was given the task to clear enough land to build the opera house in 1858. Charles Garnier's design was chosen from a competition held in 1861.

Palais Garnier Grand-Foyer.
Who was their decorator, King Midas?
(Looks like it could use a touch of gold.)
From the very beginning, the Paris Opera was designed to be an extravagant, over-the-top experience--a richly decorated space with pretentious elements such as a seven-ton central chandelier, bronze busts of composers, and multiple columns, friezes and statues. The enormous stage could accommodate up to 450 performers at one time (not uncommon in some ballet's at the time). The attention to space was matched only by the building’s cavernous corridors and stairwells. Construction began in 1862. However, very soon they were plagued numerous setbacks and delays. At a time when architecture trumped engineering, the builders quickly came to realize they were building the foundation in a swamp. Draining it took roughly eight months. Then came the Franco-Prussian War and the subsequent fall of Napoleon III, which also caused long interruptions in construction.

Quite apart from surface swamp, a manmade subterranean reservoir, not to mention the legendary Paris sewers, today there's now the Paris Metro system in which three subway tunnels come together on three different levels just in front of the Opera House.
Once construction was finally underway the builders encountered another water problem. Quite apart from the costly draining of surface water, they came to realize that the ground water level was unexpectedly high. They tried running steam pumps 24-7 but to no avail. To deal with this problem Garnier designed an ingenious double foundation to protect the superstructure from moisture. It incorporated a water course and an enormous concrete cistern which would both relieve the pressure of the external groundwater on the basement walls as well as serve as a reservoir in case of fire. Soon a legend arose that the opera house was built over a subterranean lake. The legend persisted as Gaston Leroux incorporate the idea into his novel The Phantom of the Opera. Andrew Lloyd Webber took it from there.
The opera that made the Paris Opera famous.
If the exterior of the Palais Garnier is stunning in its "wedding cake" Italian Baroque extravagance, inside the Opera is even more so. Just inside, one encounters the white marble Grand Staircase leading to the golden Grand Foyer which next leads into the auditorium with its massive dome redecorated in 1964 by Marc Chagall. From the center of the dome hangs the famous seven-ton central chandelier made of Bronze and crystal, also designed by Garnier. It is one of the most outstanding features of the opera house.

The Chagall ceiling and dome is the only decorative feature
not original with the 19th-century building.
The auditorium, with its horseshoe shape, currently has a seating capacity of more than 1900 people (reduced from 2200, earlier). Confronting this grand auditorium, is one of the largest stages in Europe, seemingly as large as the auditorium itself. The ceiling area originally had paintings by Jules-Eugene Lenepveu, until replaced in 1964 with a new ceiling featuring paintings by Marc Chagall.

Some of the space indicated:

Grand Foyer (3), Avant Foyer (5), Grand Stairway (8–10), Side staircases (11), Salon of the Moon (12), Salon of the Sun (13), Auditorium (20–24), Orchestra pit (25), Rotonda of the Emperor (30), Rotonda of Subscribers (42), Stage (45), Foyer of the Dance (58), Administration (63–64).
Backstage, the Palais Garnier was state-of-the-art at the time it was built with electricity added in 1881, new personnel and freight elevators installed at the rear of stage in the 1950s, to facilitate the moving of stage scenery and employees in the administration area of the building. In 1969, the theatre was given new electrical facilities, while in 1978, part of the original Foyer of the Dance was converted into new rehearsal space for the ballet company. Then, in 1994, overall restoration work was begun on the theatre, consisting of modernizing the stage machinery while restoring and preserving the opulent décor, as well as strengthening the structure and foundation of the building. This long-term effort was not completed until 2007.

Photos copyright, Jim Lane
These photos are of a cutaway model of the Palais Garnier
I found on display at the Orsay Museum in Paris.
The Grand Stairway is even more grand when seen in human
scale, arrayed with those who make up its reason for being.

Charles Gumery's Harmony

Poetry, 1869, Charles Gumery


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