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Genoa, Monte Carlo, Nice, Toulon, Marseille, Montpellier, Barcelona
ToulonBarcelonaGenoaOrangeMonte CarloMontpellierMarseilleAix en ProvenceNice
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The worst enemy of an opera house is fire. These dramatic fires are sometimes laden with tragic irony when gruesome death greets those who have come seeking pleasure. In 1881 at the Théâtre Royale in Nice an eager audience awaited Bianca Donadio as Lucia de Lammermoor. The first act curtain fell not to brightly illuminated scenery but to a raging fire on stage that quickly engulfed the auditorium. Fifty-nine bodies of an estimated 200-400 victims were recovered, mostly those sitting in the poulailler (pigeon roost).
In recent history a sans abri in Frankfurt found his way onto the opera's cold stage and built a small fire to warm himself. In Venice a behind schedule electrical contractor contrived a small fire to gain a reprieve, an unidentified cause provoked a fire that devastated Barcelona's Liceu. Perhaps the best friends of these old opera houses were their fires. From destruction comes renewal as the outdated stage houses of the Liceu, La Fenice and Frankfort are now state-of-the-art spaces ready to exploit the latest advances in scenic technology. The meticulously restored auditoriums in Venice and Barcelona belie the presence of modern acoustical materials, ventilation and creature comforts.
The paper, wood and cloth, the flammable materials of olden-day scenery were illuminated by candles or oil lamps, the open flame's light reflected through vials of red wine to create emotional red hues. Yet these obviously dangerous light sources were far safer than the gas lights of late nineteen century theaters that offered easily adjusted lighting and considerable effect. These lights required intricate piping to deliver their explosive fuel. It was such an accident that destroyed Nice's old theater, its stage and auditorium scaffoldings constructed entirely of wood.
The new Opéra de Nice was designed in stone and steel by Niçoise architect François Aune, a student of Gustave Eiffel, the famous pioneer of steel structure. Eiffel himself had engineered the dome of Nice's Observatoire du Mont Gros, a building he designed in collaboration with Charles Garnier, the dernier cri of Second Empire civic architecture. Garnier had made his reputation by winning the 1861 competition for the design of the new Opéra in Paris (now named the Palais Garnier perhaps to distinguish it from Monaco's Salle Garnier, Garnier's 1879 version of a really truly luxurious theater for the rich).
France's historically important seaport city Toulon is of course not without an imposing opera house. Its current one was designed in the late 1850's and built between 1860 and 1862. Its history is sketchy and controversial. Reliable sources point to Toulon born Léon Feuchères as its creator, the architect who gave Nimes its beautiful Prefecture (and his name to the Avenue Feuchères), though some sources attribute its elaborate neo-Louis XIV inspired design to the as-yet-unknown Garnier himself. Malicious sources intimate that Garnier elaborated Feuchéres' designs for the Paris competition thus making Toulon's sumptuous Opéra the model for Paris'.
The cornerstone of Marseille's Opéra was laid in 1786, though that stone is most of what there is left of the original theater. Marseille thereby joined Bordeaux as the first cities in all France to boast their Opéras. The grand old Marseille theater was finally gutted by flames after a rehearsal of Meyerbeer's L'Africanne in 1919, Bordeaux's old theater long since replaced by an impressive Garnier designed opera palace. The renewed Opéra de Marseille reopened in 1924, and now longs for a catastrophe to provoke it to be brought to twenty-first century standards.
Human ingenuity is also a great friend to opera houses. Montpellier achieved some of the world's finest urban renewal, the centerpiece of which is a brand new, 2000 seat opera house, the Salle Berlioz in its monumental Corum. This magnificent pink marble theater was designed by Strasbourg architect Claude Vasconi, the mastermind of Les Halles Forum in Paris. Though at the very top of the ingenuity list is Jean Nouvel's Opéra de Lyon. This progressive city did not invoke catastrophe to destroy its out-of-date theater, it simply brought in a famous architect who built a new theater right on top of the old one! It is worth a trip to Lyon just to see this 1830 neo-classic structure crowned by a sleek quonset hut, its gutted interior replaced by molded black plastic, and named what else but the Opéra Nouvel.
Raoul Mille in the first volume of his Ma Riviera, Chroniques vividly describes the fire at the Opéra de Nice, and the sang froid of the diva Bianca Donadio who emerged through the flames holding her habilleuse in her arms. In this same volume Mr. Mille also recounts the realization of the last dream of Frankfurt banker Louis-Raphael Bischoffsheim, the building of the Garnier designed Observatoire du Mont Gros.
Note: this page will someday hold evaluations of each of the CapSurOpera theaters, and brief historical accounts. The above article was published in the Var Village Voice, December 2007.