A Night at Palais Garnier, Paris

If you’ve read my post about one dark and stormy night (with a delish chocolate hazelnut cake), you would know that I’d been trying to see Marc Chagall’s paintings in person for years without much success. So when I heard that the Russian-born artist of Belarusian Jewish origin painted the ceiling of the famous opera house in Paris, and that Juan Diego Flórez – a Peruvian tenor who received his country’s highest decoration at the age of 31 – would be performing a recital at Palais Garnier during the time of our visit, I did not waste any time in acquiring a ticket.

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Built from 1861 to 1875 for the Paris Opera, and named after its architect – Charles Garnier – Palais Garnier is of Napoleon III (second empire) and Beaux-Arts style and is “a building of exceptional opulence”. Four sculpture groups line the front left and right side of the façade – They are (from left to right): Poetry or Harmony by François Jouffroy; Instrumental Music by Jean-Baptiste Claude Eugène Guillaume; The Dance by Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux; and Lyrical Drama by Jean-Joseph Perraud.

The sculptures in the middle section are crowned with medallions, with heads of four famous composers: Bach, Pergolesi, Haydn and Cimarosa.

The interior of the building consists of a grand staircase

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with a ceiling painted by Isidore Pils

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Depicting The Triumph of ApolloThe Enchantment of Music Deploying its CharmsMinerva Fighting Brutality Watched by the Gods of Olympus, and The City of Paris Receiving the Plan of the New Opera.

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The main stairs lead directly to the orchestra.

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while the two divergent flights of stairs lead to the Grand Foyer.

The auditorium is traditional Italian horseshoe-shaped.

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Designed for the audience to both see

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and be seen.

The stage is the largest in Europe, accommodating up to 450 artists.

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And the ceiling, was painted by…none other than…Marc Chagall 🙂

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Whose appointment at the time received fierce criticisms. As a result, Chagall “had to work in secret, in a workshop of the Gobelins neighborhood, before being assembled in Meudon under military protection.” Also in facing the opposition, it was conceded that the original ceiling – by Jules Eugène Lenepveu – be preserved, and the new ceiling is made of a 240m² removable canvas stretching above it. Nevertheless, Chagall’s ceiling was inaugurated on September 23rd, 1964. In his own unique, colourful and dreamy tones, the artist paid tribute to some of the great works of opera and ballet in history, along with famous landmarks in Paris.

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I present you each of the five panels below counter-clockwise – starting with the Eiffel Tower, Igor Stravinsky’s Firebird, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake (center bottom), and Adolphe Adam’s Giselle (above)

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Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov

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Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s The Magic Flute, Richard Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde (bottom left corner), Arc de Triomphe, Place de la Concorde, and Louis-Hector Berlioz’s Romeo and Juliette

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Jean-Philippe Rameau, Palais Garnier (this opera house), Claude Debussy’s Pelléas and Mélisande – If you look closely between the tree and the lady with an umbrella on the bottom rightside, you can even discern Chagall’s signature.

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And finally Maurice Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloë (back to the Eiffel Tower).

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There is also an inner circle – hiden behind the chandeliers – depicting more musical scenes including Georges Bizet’s Carmen. 

At the night of the performance, I arrived at Palais Garnier half an hour before the recital. My seat, 19S (S stands for Strapontin) in the orchestra section, turned out to be one of those folding seats down the center of the aisle. Evidently I could not be seated until everyone else in my row is seated, so I joined the line outside the auditorium where a stern looking woman checked our tickets and told us to wait…Wait we did until just about 3 minutes from curtain time before we were ushered in. One by one she assigned us to an unoccupied seat, regardless of what the ticket says, whether it is folding seat or not. And she did so with such efficiency that it was almost like she’s been doing it for years (she probably did!). It was hilarious! Somehow I ended up in a folding seat, several rows from the center of the stage. Hooray!!

The recital started shortly. The Peruvian tenor delivered an electrifying performance from works by Verdi, Puccini, Mozart, and of course Rossini, showing off his virtuosity and ability to deliver high notes with such easy and musicality that had he not mentioned the fact that he’s been sick, we would not have noticed it.

Gioacchino Rossini (1792-1868)
La lontananza
Bolero
Addio ai Viennesi

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
Die Entführung aus dem Serail
Ich baue ganz auf deine Stärke
Mitridate,re di Ponto
Vado Incontro

Gioacchino Rossini
Othello
Che ascolto ahime…Ah come mai non senti…

Ruggero Leoncavallo (1857-1919)
Aprile
Vieni, amor mio
Mattinata

Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924)
Gianni Schicchi
Avete Torto… Firenze è come un albero fiorito
La Bohème
Che gelida manina

Jules Massenet (1842-1912)
Werthier
Pourquoi me réveiller

Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901)
I Lombardi
La mia letizia infondere
La Traviata
De’ miei bollenti spiriti… O mio rimorso

Certainly this called for an encore, the first of which he returned with a guitar. Armed with a good sense of humour, Flórez played and sang a tango and two traditional songs from Latin America (including “Cucurucucu Paloma“).

Then came the second and final encore, which turned out to be Donizetti’s Una Furtiva Lagrima

As I was sitting there, several feet from the great tenor, listening to the beautiful, tender love song by Nemorino, I couldn’t help but looking up at Chagall’s masterpiece ceiling. It was unbelievable how perfect and dreamlike the evening was, if only it could last forever.

Coming up next in the Travel section: Spring in Paris.

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21 thoughts on “A Night at Palais Garnier, Paris

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