Sunday, May 25, 2014

The House Garnier Built: Away to Visit Paris part 6

My first visit to Paris was too short to include a visit to Palais Garnier Opera House, and my sister insists I need to take a tour on my next trip. Three years later, I am finally back in the City of Light, and I have cajoled Ken and our friends into a guided tour the magnificent house that Charles Garnier built.

Wanting to retain at least a bit of spontaneity, I have reserved only a couple of guided tours in advance of our trip. The tour offered by Cultival appears to be a bargain: only €4.50 more than the €10 general admission ticket, and we plan our day around the 11:30 a.m. tour.

Our group of 20 is led by a very capable guide who shares with us the fascinating history of this opulent palace. Commissioned by Napoleon III, the "new opera house" was inaugurated in 1875. Architect Charles Garnier created a flamboyant feast of marble, gilt, and velvet.

Our tour starts at the bottom of the grand escalier, the giant double staircase. Belle Époch opera goers were primarily interested in "seeing and being seen" and secondly for the opera itself, explains our guide. Two people who nearly missed the opera house's grand opening: Monsieur and Madame Garnier, who were overlooked on the guest list and had to buy their own tickets.

Although there are rehearsals today for a ballet later this week, we are allowed  inside the auditorium, after being warned not to take any pictures of the stage. Today, Palais Garnier is the home for ballet, while operas are performed at L'Opera Bastille, an unlovely building 7.2 kilometers to the east. 

Looking up, I study the 340-light bronze and crystal chandelier with its surrounding "modern" mural painted by Marc Chagall and installed in 1964. Our guide says that the Chagall ceiling is one of those "love it or hate it" things. Especially after seeing a replica of the original ceiling, I come down squarely on the Chagall side of the debate.

I immediately notice the similarities between the opera house's grand foyer and the famed Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. So much gold! So many mirrors! Such opulence! Mon dieu!

Palais Garnier sits atop a large reservoir of water, offering peace of mind in case of fire and a training site for the city's fire fighters.(The previous opera house, the Salle Le Peletier, had been destroyed by a fire in 1873.) Meanwhile, up on the roof, which has been the setting for several films and television shows, honeybees produce honey that is sold for a small fortune in the opera house's gift shop.

Oh, and in case you're wondering, all that stuff in "Phantom of the Opera"? Pas vrai.

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