The Opéra de Paris can trace its lineage all the way back to 1669, when it was founded by Louis XIV - the builder of Versailles and other royal excesses - for court entertainment. By the 19th Century, the Paris Opera had become the leading opera house in the world, bringing composers to Paris from all over Europe. Weber, Rossini, Wagner were all here at the same time as Bizet, Berlioz, Gounod...
For over a century, the Paris Opera was situated at the Palais Garnier: a theater of gilded splendor built between 1860 and 1875 situated smack dab in the center of Paris. But, it's a relatively small house, holding just over 2,000 people: little more than half the size of the Met. So, in the 1980's, President François Mitterand broke ground on the Opéra Bastille: a thoroughly modern house facing the Place de la Bastille and it's monumental column in the eastern end of Paris. Putting the new opera house here was no accident: the Bastille is the populist heart of Paris and France, where the revolution was born in 1789. (The Bastille Opera opened in 1989, on the 200th anniversary of Bastille Day.) No small wonder, then, that Paris Opera director Gerard Mortier would be enticed to come to New York to direct our own "People's Opera."
The Paris Opera still uses both houses, though it reserves its larger, more complex productions for the Bastille, which has close to 3,000 seats, all with great sightlines (if somewhat spotty acoustics.) And, while ticket prices can exceed 200 Euros, several hundred seats in the balcony are priced at less than 20 Euros for each performance. (This, too, is a policy Mr. Mortier has promised to bring to City Opera for the 2009 season.)
One name that occasionally gets omitted from the starry crowd of composers that came to Paris in the 19th century is Vincenzo Bellini: a contemporary of Donizetti's once seen as the rightful heir to Rossini's mantle. Sadly, he died at 32 in a suburb of Paris, and was buried at Père Lachaise, just a 10 minute walk from here. Nevertheless, he managed to produce ten operas in as many years, including repertory staples such as I Puritani, Norma, and La Sonnambula.
Last night, the Bastille Opera presented one of Bellini's lesser known works: The Capulets and The Montagues (I Capuleti e I Montecchi), based on the familiar story of Romeo and Juliet. Bellini wrote the score in less than six weeks, premiering it in Venice in 1830. Knowing Mortier's predilection for provocative productions, I was surprised by Robert Carsen's direction, which used period costumes and a slimmed down, almost minimalist set. Evelino Pidò, who led the first restored production of The Capulets and The Montagues in Paris in 1995, led the performance.
The music has its moments, but the chief draw last night was the starry cast, including tenor Matthew Polenzani as Tebaldo, mezzo Joyce DiDonato as Romeo, and superstar soprano Anna Netrebko as Juliet, making her Paris Opera debut. All were outstanding, but with her raven beauty and full, dramatic voice, Netrebko stole the show, eventually bringing the house down after her climactic Act II aria. Her passionate duets with DiDonato will no doubt leave opera fans whispering on both sides of the ocean; you'll have to wait till I get home next week to see my pics.
Last night's performance was a gala for AROP (Les Amis de l'Opéra), which meant I paid twice as much as I normally would have for a seat in the upper reaches of the balcony. At least they fed me with free Charles Heidseck and canapés during intermission. Not to mention I was fortunate to have a seat period: all remaining performances of The Capulets and The Montagues are completely sold out. (More pics after the jump.)
There is more opera to come on this trip, but I'll have to make my way up to Amsterdam for that. As it is, my last day in Paris should provide one heck of an appetizer.