Either you love it or hate it—is often said about the opera. People who love it will always love it, and those who don’t may learn to love it one day. Composer Richard Wagner claimed that:
The aim of the opera has ever been, and still is today, confined to Music…and the purpose of Drama dragged on- naturally, was not to curtail the ends of Music, but rather to serve her simply as a means.
The jovial combination of music and theatre attracted all ranks of classes since the opera’s early origin in Italy in the 16th century. In France, the first recognized opera “Cadmus et Hermione” by Jean-Baptise Lully was performed in 1673 at the court of Louis XIV, who was himself an avid lover of dance. It was only natural for the King to establish the Académie in 1669, which was later renamed Académie Royale de Musique. The Paris Opera, as commonly called, had survived generations of transformations until its final rest, today the Palais Garnier, in one of Paris’ most exciting neighbourhoods, the 9th arrondissement around Avenue de l’Opéra. Its complete retrospect revealing the historical outline, architectural development, commission of arts and artefacts and documentation of musical pieces and librettos are being exhibited in “Dialogues of the Muses: The Paris Opera House and the Arts” at the Artizon Museum in Tokyo until February 5th. About 250 works from the Bibliothèque nationale de France and other sources in Japan and abroad focus particularly on the 19th and early 20th centuries, the age of romantic ballet, grand opera, and the Ballets Russes.
The enormous exhibition opens with the background of the birth of Palais Garnier, which emerged as a catalyst of the assassination attempt on Napoleon III in 1858. The emperor immediately prompted to construct a new opera house (from the old Opera House at Rue la Peltier) apparently close to his residence in the Palais des Tuileries. Designed by architect Charles Garnier, the new theatre commenced its structural work in 1862 and was finally inaugurated in 1875, bringing fresh hope and glory to the Parisians who had been traumatized by two fatal incidents occurring at the previous Opera House—the stabbing of King Louis XVIII's nephew, Charles Ferdinand in 1820, and the horrific fire of 1873. Illustrations recounting the fire can be seen in the exhibition.
Architectural drawings of the Paris Opera’s construction by Garnier (Facade of the Paris Opera (Opera Garnier), 1861; The Grand Staircase, auditorium elevation, 19th century), and other artists, such as Paul Baudry (Sketches of the arches and medallions, loggia side, of the grand foyer of the Paris Opera, 19th century) reveal ornate details of the impressive facade in Neo-Baroque style, with Corinthian colonnades, vaulted ceilings, buttresses, embellished wall carvings, and decorative sculptures, all reflecting the blend of the classicism of Palladio and Renaissance architecture as well. The principal facade is known to have involved fourteen painters, mosaicists and seventy-three sculptors The Inauguration of the Paris Opera on January 5, 1875 (1878), a captivating gouache by Jean-Baptiste Édouard Detaille clearly encapsulates the theatre’s magnificent design.
Passing through the galleries in the exhibition is like walking around the Paris Opera as it evolves in time. The interior’s exquisite Baroque Grand Staircase, Grand Foyer, and horse-shaped auditorium provide the main highlights of the theatre. Both the Grand Foyer and Grand Staircase are made from white marble, and onyx, with a balustrade of red and green marble, heavily ornamented with notable sculptures featuring nymphs and Greek gods. Thirty hand-carved marble columns encircle the stunning curved staircase glittered by a six-ton central chandelier.
Above all, Palais Garnier is largely admired for its mouth-watering ceiling frescoes by Marc Chagall, completed in 1964, and spanning 240 square meters. Highly revered for his magical scenic art and vibrant colour expression, Chagall, then 77 years old, composed winged characters, quintessential Parisian monuments like the Arc de Triomphe, and musical instruments. Also, at a close look at the exhibited final gouache by Chagall, one can scrutinize four great composers and their operatic works in the small central circle: Bizet in red (Carmen), Verdi in yellow (La Traviata), Beethoven in green (Fidelio), and Gluck in blue (Orpheus and Eurydice). The larger circular panel features ten more composers and their works, such as Tchaikovsky in yellow (Swan Lake) and Stravinsky in blue (Firebird). The masterpiece did not, in fact, destroy the original classic ceiling art The Muses and the Hours of the Day and Night painted by Jules-Eugène Lenepveu in 1872. Chagall’s frescoes were superimposed on Lenepveu’s painting using polyester panels that can be easily disassembled—a clear evidence of France’s unmatched dedication to the preservation and reinvention of historic art.
Apart from architectural drawings, visitors will also be delighted by a marvellous array of precious artworks representing opera and ballet performances, stage sets, costumes, and portraits from the Bibliothèque nationale de France, Musée d’Orsay, and other sources. These include Edgar Degas’ The dance class (1873-76), François-Gabriel-Guillaume’s Lépaulle, Trio from act V, scene 3 of Robert le Diable (Robert the Devil) (1835), Édouard Manet’s Masked Ball at the Opera (1873), Antoine Watteau’s La Perspective (view through the trees in the park of Pierre Crozat) (1715), and Alfred Edward Chalon’s Pas de Quatre: Carlotta Grisi, Marie Taglioni, Lucile Grahn & Fanny Cerrito (1845).
The comprehensive presentation of Paris Opera’s remarkable history, narrating artistic, cultural and sociological perspectives, will certainly allure visitors to experience the grandeur of the monument over and over again.