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The Opéra Royal

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The Opéra Royal

The Opéra Royal is one of Ange-Jacques Gabriel’s most important architectural works. When inaugurated in 1770, it constituted the largest auditorium for live performances in Europe and was a marvel of engineering and decorative refinement. A theatre under the monarchy and, later, under the republic, it has also hosted celebrations, shows and parliamentary debates.

Planned since the reign of Louis XIV, the construction of the Opéra Royal was finally completed between 1748 and 1770 under his successor, Louis XV

The Roi Soleil’s architects had worked on plans for a large theatre to be located at the end of the North wing, where the current Opéra Royal now stands, but construction did not begin during his reign. In 1748, Ange-Jacques Gabriel, the architect of the Petit Trianon, took up his predecessors’ plans. The initial structural work was begun but financial difficulties and procrastination with regard to the internal layout led to all construction being halted in 1756; building began again between 1763 and 1765, before once more coming to a stop.

The decision to finish the Opéra Royal was taken in 1768, when the marriage between the Dauphin, future Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, daughter of Empress Maria-Theresa of Austria was being negotiated. A place needed to be found in which to celebrate the festivities. Assisted by the machine designer Blaise-Henri Arnoult, Gabriel put the final touches to the plans for the Opéra Royal. It was finished in two years, thanks to a pharaonic building site that saw hundreds of labourers at work day and night.

The auditorium seen from the orchestra pit

The Opéra Royal is a marvel of engineering and decorative refinement and was the largest theatre in Europe when it was inaugurated

Arnoult designed it so it could be used both for performances and for festivities. In the festivities configuration, the theatre’s floor could be raised to the height of the stage by some winches that are still there today, creating an enormous space measuring approximately 50 m by 20 m. In the performances configuration, it could hold up to 1,336 spectators. Machinery set at a height of 35 m enabled spectacular sets to be changed in full view of the public. Built entirely of wood, the theatre also boasts exceptional acoustics.

The interior layout was a combination of innovation and classicism. By replacing boxes by galleries one on top of the other, Gabriel improved visibility and the theatre’s acoustics. On the last floor, mirrors reflect the chandeliers, creating an effect of depth and lightness. Leading artists of the time worked on the decoration of the theatre: Augustin Pajou was responsible for the sculptured decoration and personally made the woodwork of the boxes, while Louis-Jacques Durameau supervised the painted decoration, himself executing the large ceiling with Apollo preparing crowns for illustrious men of the Arts.

The stage seen from the boxes

Throughout its history, the Opéra Royal has been both a place for performances and festivities, and the theatre of events marking the history of France.

On 16 May 1770, the theatre was inaugurated with the celebrations for the marriage between the Dauphin and Marie-Antoinette. The first performances took place on 17 May (Persée by Lully) and 23 May (Athalie by Racine). In the closing years of the Ancien Régime, the Opéra Royal hosted the celebrations for the most eminent members of the royal family: the marriages of the Counts of Provence and Artois, the future kings Louis XVIII and Charles X, the birth of the Dauphin… On 1 October 1789, the King’s Gardes du Corps gave a banquet on the stage in honour of their colleagues in the Flanders regiment, during which the royal family was acclaimed. According to rumour, the revolutionary cockade was supposedly trampled upon, and this was sparked off the anger of the Parisian populace which rapidly led to the departure of the king from Versailles on 6 October 1789.

In the 19th century, the destiny of the Opéra Royal was the same as that chosen by the various regimes for the Palace of Versailles. In 1837, the historic galleries of Louis-Philippe were inaugurated there. In 1855, Napoleon III offered a banquet there in honour of Queen Victoria. From 1871 to 1875, it was used as the temporary seat of the National Assembly and so played host to parliamentarians, and was subsequently a home to the Senate between 1876 and 1879. Restored in the 20th century, the Opéra Royal was newly inaugurated in 1957 in the presence of Queen Elizabeth II. Since 2009, a musical season combining concerts, opera and ballet takes place annually.

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