The history of The Royal Opera House at The Palace of Versailles, from its birth under Louis XIV to the 21st century

The Palace of Versailles’s opera house wasn’t completed until 1770, by which time revolution was afoot. Paul Riley charts its chequered history

The Royal Opera House at TThe Royal Opera House Palace of Versaille
Published: July 27, 2022 at 3:51 pm
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Arguably no monarch was more enthusiastic in taking centre-stage than Louis XIV of France. And quite literally centre-stage. As a seasoned dancer in the Court ballets, he danced some 80 roles – most famously of all that of the rising sun in Le Ballet Royal de la Nuit. It was a role that the 15-year old aspired to live up to throughout his reign, and it supplied his soubriquet: The Sun King.

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But although the theatre-loving Louis included plans for a great opera house in his ambitions for expanding the palace at Versailles, he didn’t live to see the fulfilment of his musical dreams. And so it would fall to his successor to witness the grand curtain-up. There was an incentive to get it built, too. The theatre had to be ready for the nuptials of the Dauphin and Archduchess Marie Antoinette of Austria in 1770. Which it was, just.

Why was an opera house built at Versailles?

It’s not that Versailles was without its performance spaces, but they lacked room for the sort of stage machinery necessary for the grand spectacles of opera and ballet. Lavish entertainments were housed in specially constructed pop-ups, spaces designed to be dismantled after use. And they were not necessarily modest affairs either. The gilded papier-mâché structure created for the premiere of Molière’s George Dandin comfortably seated in excess of 1,000 spectators. For something more permanent, Louis XV turned to his favourite architect, Ange-Jacques Gabriel, who designed Paris’s Place de la Concorde. Gabriel sent an assistant to see what Italy had to offer before settling on a semi-elliptical layout providing maximum visibility and acoustic clarity.

When did work start on the Royal Opera House at Versailles?

Building work began in 1766 – the roof went on three years later while the sumptuous interior was finished just a month before the royal wedding. Apollo, the sun god and god of music and dance, loomed large in sculptor Augustin Pajou’s decorative scheme, with reliefs depicting operatic characters to animate the blues, golds and marbled wood of the walls. Topping it all was a giant ceiling painting by Durameau depicting Apollo fashioning the crowns with which to honour the ‘illustrious men of the arts’.

What was the first production?

First to christen the new theatre and greet the newly-weds was Lully’s Persée, a lavish production featuring 95 singers, 80 dancers, 15 soloists, an instrumental band of 80 musicians, five lavish sets and over 500 costumes. Coincidentally, it had been written in 1682, the year in which Louis XIV had made Versailles his official residence. It’s thought Lully’s opera was chosen to give Marie Antoinette a crash course in French operatic manners – after all, her inclinations favoured Italian and German music and Voltaire warned that ‘she must not be made to yawn’. A forlorn hope. One contemporary noted that ‘Madame la Dauphine did not seem to take pleasure in it’. And the splendidly named Baron Grimm deemed the piece ‘magnificently boring’.

Included in the festivities, too, were Rameau’s Castor et Pollux; dramas by Racine and Voltaire; and a specially composed ballet which got equally short shrift from the hard-to-please Baron: ‘miserable, absurd, tedious and completely ridiculous’. Possibly he was more enthusiastic about the music chosen for the wedding of the Comte d’Artois three years later. Tastes were changing. Lully and Rameau seemed increasingly old hat compared to Gossec, Grétry and Marie Antoinette’s erstwhile harpsichord teacher, Gluck. Indeed Gluck’s Iphigénie en Aulide given in May 1782, and Armide, two years later, would be the last two major productions to be staged before the revolution.

In part this was because the Opéra Royal had never been intended as a repertory house with a changing procession of regular performances. It was a theatre for courtly high days and holidays. And it had been designed to multi-task as a banqueting-hall-cum-ballroom. Neither designation came cheap. For staged performances, endlessly replenished candles illuminated the auditorium and foyer while, concealed behind the set flaps, 3,000 oil lamps bathed the scenery in light. The musicians had to be brought in from Paris, the star singers often demanding ‘sweeteners’; and despite some cunning machinery to raise the orchestra floor, a vast army of costly carpenters was required to repurpose the space for feasting and dancing.

Ironically, a banquet and operatic air conspired to seal the theatre’s pre-revolutionary fate when, on 1 October 1789, the royal bodyguards threw a dinner for the Flanders Regiment – newly detailed to Versailles to reinforce the palace’s security. Presciently dubious about ‘looking in’ on the proceedings, the King, Queen and Dauphin were nevertheless present when cries of ‘vive le roi’ accompanied an impromptu rendition of ‘O Richard, mon roi, l’universe t’abandonne’ from Grétry’s Richard Cœur-de-lion. When word got out, the aria became the rallying cry of the monarchists. The royal family, meanwhile, was hauled back to Paris, and the protracted march to the guillotine had begun.

What happened to the Royal Opera House at Versailles during the French Revolution and 19th century?

But what of Versailles and its now mothballed opera house? In 1793 the revolutionary government decreed that all the royal property in the palace be auctioned, and over the course of a year anything from furniture to kitchen utensils was parcelled up into 17,000 lots. The abandoned buildings became store houses. And hidden in a secret cache below the orchestra, the musicians’ chairs and music stands remained forgotten, to be rediscovered during later renovations.

Now began the most chequered part of the theatre’s story. Not until the restoration of the monarchy did things begin to look up. As part of his plans to reimagine Versailles as a museum, a gift to the French people dedicated to ‘all the glories of France’, Louis-Philippe had the opera house redecorated and updated. Moreover, a special opening gala suggested that the theatre might be back in business. That was not to reckon on the running costs, however, which had not gone away. A couple of glittering state banquets including one for Queen Victoria and Prince Albert followed perhaps the only notable musical event of the period.

In 1844 Berlioz had presided over a concert for which he’d mustered over 1,000 performers and an audience eight times that number. Now he was prevailed upon to conduct a benefit at the Opéra Royal. On 29 October 1848 (with revolution in the air once more), he assembled 400 musicians for a programme of Beethoven, Gluck, Rossini and Weber. Not forgetting himself, there was the ‘Grand fête’ from Roméo et Juliette, the Marche Hongroise and, for his own orchestration of Weber’s Invitation to the Dance, he enlisted 18 harpists. ‘The takings,’ he wrote, ‘were huge, and we had had to turn away 500 people.’

Turning away crowds eager to catch a performance was not, however, going to be an issue for the next 100 years and more as things turned predominantly political. First came the Franco-Prussian War during which the German army, laying siege to Paris, occupied the palace. With a nuanced sense of pageant, the Prussian King William I had himself crowned Kaiser in the great Hall of Mirrors. And when the Germans left in 1871, the theatre became home to the French Assembly, making Versailles technically the French capital for the duration until the Assembly and Paris were reunited in 1879.

Not until after World War II did major refurbishment restore the theatre to its original 1770 glory – reinstating the ceiling painting and original colour scheme. Ongoing restoration continued into the 21st century with painstaking work on the backstage areas.

It’s a theatre that has long fired the imagination of harpsichordist and director of Les Talens Lyriques, Christophe Rousset. He brought his grandmother to Versailles at the age of ten to see Puccini’s Tosca. ‘Even as a child I was fascinated by the aesthetic,’ he recalls. ‘It woke my imagination to wonder what had gone on in the palace in the past. When you conduct there you really touch the spirit of the place, and it touches you. And when I perform Lully or Rameau, I’m not relying on a purely musical experience. Everything in Versailles makes the music clearer. It’s about the whole ambience including the gardens. Just as you might notice a detail, a window, or perhaps a chimney, so it is with the music. You feel the size is just right for such refined music.’

The Royal Opera House and the 21st century

The Royal Opera house France
Actors perform during a rehearsal of the opera "Richard the Lionheart" at the Royal Opera of the Chateau de Versailles.

Over the past decade the house has powered into action, notching up more productions than in all the previous 240 years combined. Driving the Opéra Royal’s new-found head of steam is director of Château de Versailles Spectacle, Laurent Brunner. ‘An historic theatre must be respected,’ he insists, ‘and performing music from the time of its construction seems to me essential. Versailles Opera is the only theatre whose programme largely consists of music composed between the birth of opera and the French Revolution. Where other companies start with Mozart, I do the opposite, putting together programmes that end with him. Versailles itself is a museum, but its Opéra is a place of living spectacle.’ Sometime plaything of kings, emperors and state, L’Opéra Royal is a theatre whose egalitarian time has surely come.

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Photos by Getty Images

Authors

Paul RileyJournalist and Critic, BBC Music Magazine

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