The Renaissance of the Opéra Comique celebrates the notion of the human condition rather than comedy. It’s looking forward by commissioning new work, while retooling classics such as “Carmen,” from Georges Bizet and “Alcyone,” from Marin Marais.
The Opéra Comique has stood, in one form or another, on the discreet Place Boieldieu in central Paris since 1783, making it one of the oldest performance sites in the city.
Its current home, a gracious building with tall columns and classical statuary, which opened in 1898 after two previous incarnations burned down, is far smaller than the monumental Palais Garnier, where the Paris Opéra holds court. By the 1970s it had fallen into disuse, disrepair and disfavor.
In the years since, the Opéra Comique endured as a teaching theater or outmoded performance space, but not a home for opera — until a gradual rebirth and recently, a wholesale reimagination of what modern opera could be.
For audiences today, opera can seem “dated, backward looking, old fashioned,” said Olivier Mantei, the Opéra Comique’s director. He has made it his mission to find a way to revitalize the art form, retaining its loyal audience while reaching out to new fans. To do so, he has dug deep into the Opéra Comique’s tradition of innovation to find a way forward.
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“An opera that doesn’t put on contemporary creations is an opera that dies, that is not enriched, that lives only off its past,” said Mantei, who has commissioned two new operas this year. He has also made a point of reviving long abandoned works and reinterpreting Baroque classics in the renovated opera house.
In a city synonymous with culture, the Opéra Comique is making a conscious effort to create 21st-century art for modern Parisians.
Contrary to its name, there is only occasional humor in the Opéra Comique, which refers more to the notion of the “human comedy,” the way some writers, notably the 19th-century author Honoré de Balzac, described the drama of life. Unlike grand opera, in which all parts are sung, Opéra Comique intersperses song with spoken dialogue, like operetta in Britain or singspiel in Germany.
Traditional Opéra Comique productions that were innovative in their day remain daring even by today’s standards. Among them are Georges Bizet’s “Carmen,” the sensual story of the dark side of seduction, and Jacques Offenbach’s “Tales of Hoffmann,” the story of a poet’s love for three women, each of whom dies or rejects him.
These are the stories of ordinary people’s loves and losses and dreams that Mantei hopes will resonate with audiences today as they did with 19th-century middle-class Parisians.
To that end, he has overseen an 18-month, $19 million renovation of the opera house paid for by the French government. Every effort was made to preserve the details of the beloved performance hall as it had been in 1898, when it opened for the third time.
To replicate the color of the damask wall covering, the restoration team had to find an unfaded fragment of fabric in the opera’s archives, said Pierre-Antoine Gatier, the city architect in charge of the renovation. The old brass candelabras were replaced with similar ones produced by Christofle, the same company that made them 120 years ago.
Before the renovations, the opera was repeatedly alerted by the Paris Fire Department that it was at risk of overheating, so the most recent overhaul, which began in June 2015, needed to include air-conditioning. But Gatier insisted that the units be utterly silent so as not to distract from the singing.
When it came to reintroducing the Opéra Comique after its renovation, Mantei and his team chose not a new opera, but an old one made new: “Alcyone,” by the French baroque composer Marin Marais, which had not been performed in Paris for 246 years. Performances began in late April.
He recruited Jordi Savall, a renowned baroque conductor and virtuoso of the viola da gamba to conduct the orchestra, and Mantei turned to Louise Moaty, a 38-year-old director with a background in mixed media performance, not formal grand opera. In the new production, the staid court masque dances that might have seemed too slow and formal for a 21st-century audience took flight — literally.
Much of this contemporary production of “Alcyone” takes place in midair, with dancers and circus acrobats suspended by ropes and harnesses high above the stage. From the opening scenes in which Apollo ascends to the heavens to the Furies sweeping down from the skies to shatter the temple where the star-crossed lovers at the center of the story are to be married, the performance seems airborne. The aerial dance is meant to entertain the demigods and mythical creatures frolicking nearby, but also to transport the audience.
“When I direct, I am looking to give people a sense of a sort of theatrical amazement, something that makes the audience become a bit innocent and believe in magic,” Moaty said.
Not so easy in today’s world where storytelling is dominated by computer-generated imagery.
“I am looking for a contemporary language but without rejecting the ancient universe which enriches this work,” Moaty said.
Of course there is cake
In addition to the newly renovated performance hall and modern staging, the Opéra Comique has sought to mark its 2017 reopening with a quintessentially Parisian statement: It commissioned a cake from the distinguished patisserie Lenôtre. The dessert was to be named after Charles-Simon Favart, an 18th-century French playwright for whom the opera’s main performance space is also named.
After all, the Paris Opéra has a cake named for it — the Opéra, a chocolate and coffee flavored confection — and in the competition for cultural prominence, the Opéra Comique wanted its own signature sweet.
The cake took at least as long to perfect as the opera’s opening production — fine pastry is a virtual obsession in France. In an online questionnaire, the Opéra Comique asked the public what colors, flavors and textures should be represented. “This is a cake for two, to be eaten ‘in love,’” the survey said. “What should it look like?”
Parisians enthusiastically responded, and a jury, which included pastry chefs, an Opéra Comique baritone and a soprano, as well as Moaty and Mantei, decided on a cake that would pay homage to Favart.
Lenôtre’s chief pastry chef, Jean-Christophe Jeanson, said he prioritized “the emotions you want people to have when they eat it.”
“The Favart had to be fresh, not too sweet, light, very fruity,” he said, adding that he also wanted it to have historical relevance. “Once you have these elements, you can make a work of pastry art.”
Jeanson and the jury decided to model the cake on the dome of the interior of the Opéra Comique and he chose to dust it with a deep magenta powder made from raspberries. Inside was a traditional pale pink sponge cake similar to the kind made in Reims, Favart’s home city in northeastern France, where his father was a pastry chef. The final touch was a single gold leaf chosen by Moaty, after the jury considered 16 different decorative possibilities.
Jeanson said he had never been to the opera before he set out to make the cake, but he quickly found a like-minded artistic ally in the leader of the orchestra.
“We realized that our work was in completely the same spirit,” Jeanson said. “I said to him, ‘You are the orchestra chief. You have all prime materials. You know how to marry them, how to make them dance together. Each one has his place.’”
He added: “Just as the one who makes the sponge cake makes it as he should and the same for the cream. Our intention is that you have these emotions, in tasting or in coming to see the performance.”