Opera-concerts in Paris: The Théâtre des Champs-Élysées has invented a time machine.

Théâtre des Champs-Élysées
Author Yulia Savikovskaya
Category Columnists, Culture, Lifestyle, People, Town
Date April 22 2024
Reading Time 6 min.

Opera-concerts in Paris: The Théâtre des Champs-Élysées has invented a time machine.

With three concert halls and a restaurant on the top floor, the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées is one of the first Art Deco buildings in Paris, built by architect Auguste Perry with the participation of the Symbolist painter Maurice Denis (painting of the theatre’s vault, with frescoes of the Opera, Lyric Drama, Symphony and Greek Dance) and sculptor Antoine Bourdelle (marble reliefs on the front showing Apollo and the Muses representing the arts of sculpture, architecture, music, tragedy, comedy and dance). The theatre hosted the premiere of Igor Stravinsky’s ballet “Sacred Spring” as part of the Diaghilev Seasons on 29 May 1913 (it was scandalous but made music history), and later saw many world premieres of opera and ballet, including the French premiere of Mussorgsky’s opera Khovanshchina orchestrated by Stravinsky and Ravel.

Opera-concerts in Paris: The Théâtre des Champs-Élysées has invented a time machine. | London Cult.
Théâtre des Champs-Élysées © Hartl-Meyer

Today the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées is one of the key centres of Parisian musical life, where you can hear performances by leading performers and singers. We recommend taking tickets in advance, the cheapest (no visibility) can be bought for 5-10 euros, and the most expensive tickets will cost 100 euros. An interesting annual project here is the Opera in concert series, which for the 2023/2024 season included four magnificent Baroque operas – the lyrical tragedy Alceste by Jean-Baptiste Lully (1674), Handel’s Rinaldo (1713), the rarely performed sacred oratorio Jephte by the early Baroque master and “father of oratorio” Giacomo Carissimi (1648) and Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas (1689). The Théâtre des Champs-Élysées has the resources to invite leading performers specialising in different styles of music, and these evenings were no exception. On these evenings one could see on stage the American opera star, soprano Joyce DiDonato (Dido in Dido and Aeneas), the unique Italian countertenor Carlo Vistoli (Rinaldo in Rinaldo) and the renowned French soprano Véronique Gens (Alceste in Alceste).

In planning together such a programme, the theatre does have its own company or orchestra in mind – having none, it has invited the leading musical ensembles in Europe specialising in Baroque music. Those were Les Epopées under the baton of Stéphane Fuget with the chorus of the Opéra Royal de Versailles (directed by Lucile de Trémiolles) for Alceste, the early music ensemble Les Accents under the direction of violinist Thibault Noally for Rinaldo, and Il Pomo d’Oro orchestra that specialises in historically informed performance which has toured the world and garnered applause from Joyce DiDonato’s fans and from 2019 is led by Maxim Emelyanychev who also acts as harpsichordist for the orchestra. When using the term historically informed performance, it should be noted that all three ensembles are studying how the musical instruments were played at the time when the operas, cantatas, oratorios, and other works they perform were composed. The instruments that musicians have also belong to the era when the music was created. And it turns out that for three evenings the audiences of the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées had the opportunity to immerse themselves in history and to imagine what it was like to hear these operas in their authentic sound in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. The author of these lines heard all four operas live for the first time in his life, and it was all the more important to realise that the sound was exactly as it was in the time of Lully, Handel, Carissimo and Purcell.

Opera-concerts in Paris: The Théâtre des Champs-Élysées has invented a time machine. | London Cult.
Gens Véronqiue © Jean-Baptiste Millot

Alceste by Jean-Baptiste Lully to a libretto by Philippe Quinault (based on Euripides’ drama Alcestis) was written to celebrate Louis XIV’s military victories in the Dutch War (1672-1678) and glorifies him as Hercules (here Alcide). A century later Christoph Willibald Gluck wrote an opera on the same subject. Alceste premiered at the Palais-Royal in January 1674 and was later often performed at Versailles, with many ambassadors to the King’s court admiring such divertissement and bringing it for their countries. The Theatre des Champs-Élysées production also features the chorus of the Opéra Royal de Versailles, and thus the continuity is still maintained to this day. The plot has obvious links to Monteverdi’s Orfeo (1607), one of the first operas in the history of the genre, and it is interesting that this plot was also reworked by Gluck for his Orpheus and Eurydice in 1762. Alceste is the wife of King Admetus of Thessaly, who is willing to sacrifice herself to keep Admetus alive after being mortally wounded in battle, but finds herself rescued from hell by Alcide (Hercules), whose love impresses Pluto and Proserpina, who have already prepared a ballet for their guest. The opera is incredibly beautiful and exquisitely full of baroque vocal embellishments, and includes numerous secondary characters, from the nymphs in the Prologue to Lycomedes, King of Scyros, who is also in love with Alceste, as well as the confidants of all the main characters engaged in a similar love triangle. For the singers there was an opportunity to show baroque techniques for the realisation of the so-called affects of joy, love and sadness (Baroque term) on stage – such as flexible transitions from piano to forte, the dynamic colouring of long notes so that they sound different at the beginning and the end of a phrase. Among the performers it is important to mention Camille Poul as Céphise (Alceste’s confidante) and soprano Véronique Gens as Alceste, who was the star of the evening. Stéphane Fuget and his ensemble Les Epopées have an amazingly fine sense of Baroque music, and the details of their instrumental performance of Lully’s very eclectic score (there is thunder and storm, singing nymphs, palace intrigue scenes and ballets in hell) could be listened and enjoyed to separately from the vocal performances on that evening.

Opera-concerts in Paris: The Théâtre des Champs-Élysées has invented a time machine. | London Cult.
Baráth Emöke © Edouard Brane1

No less splendid was Handel’s Rinaldo, an opera to a libretto by Giacomo Rossi based on Torquato Tasso’s epic poem Jerusalem Delivered (1581). It also has the conquest in its plot – this time of Jerusalem, as Rinaldo is a great warrior in the service of Gottfried of Bouillon, and Gottfried’s daughter Almirena is intended to be his wife, but the sorceress Armida intervenes, summoned for help by Argant, the ruler of Jerusalem. But Rinaldo and Gottfried have their own magician, and in the end everyone realises that evil and sorcery are bad, and love and friendship are to be chosen instead (apparently the conquest of Jerusalem is also considered a good deed here). Many people remember the artificially created (through synthesis of female and male voices) arias of the great castrato Carlo Broschi (Farinelli) from this very opera in Farinelli (1994) by Gerard Corbiot. During the performance at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, the audience had the opportunity to see that Rinaldo can also be sung magnificently by a modern countertenor. In Carlo Vistoli’s subtle and precise performance these arias were so mesmerising that the audience followed the slightest changes in the singer’s dynamics and voice strength, not believing that such a detailed and technically correct performance with the most complex intonation of each phrase was within the reach of a human being. Lucille Richardot’s appearance in the male role of Gottfried was also interesting, with her sharp upper notes and jagged rhythms, while bass-baritone Victor Sicard excelled in the role of Argant, making him amusingly tragic in his desire to solve the issue of defence with the help of magic. As in the case of Alceste, the musical effects performed by Les Accents under the direction of Thibault Noally, gave the listeners the opportunity to visualise the movement of clouds, storms and other magical wonders in a possible stage performance in Handel’s time.

Opera-concerts in Paris: The Théâtre des Champs-Élysées has invented a time machine. | London Cult.
Emelyanychev Maxim © Andrej Grilc

The third evening was somewhat different from the previous ones, because it was featuring an international opera star, and therefore the ensemble feeling was partly disintegrated by the fact that the audience were waiting for Joyce DiDonato’s appearances, but she did not sing until the second part of the concert. The plot of the oratorio Jephte, which, incidentally, is also about success in battle, is linked to the Old Testament story. Jephte asks God for victory in exchange for the life of the first person he meets on his return, but that first person is his own daughter. In Dido and Aeneas, composed by Purcell to a libretto by Naum Tate based on the fourth book of Virgil’s Aeneid, the idyll of Dido and Aeneas in Carthage is shattered by the actions of a sorceress who sends Aeneas an imaginary Mercury to declare “the will of the gods”. Thus, Aeneas must leave to found Troy later. Interestingly, the librettist Tate decides to change the basis of this divine will to witchcraft, making the further epic story the result of this magic. Berlioz will later use this plot in a completely different way in his Les Troyens, highlighting the divine necessity of this act. When Aeneas decides to stay, Dido persuades him to leave and prepares to die. Dido’s Lament was sung so poignantly by Joyce DiDonato that the hall erupted in applause. However, the other elements of the evening, especially Jephte sung by British tenor Andrew Staples and Carlotta Colombo as his daughter, were considerably inferior in quality to those moments where DiDonato appeared. The highly emotional and jerky conducting style chosen by Maxim Emelyanychev placed this concerto in the realm of modern interpretations, an ironic and partly postmodern treatment of the Baroque heritage. Nevertheless, while being different and slightly less historically authentic, this concert of two operas was an excellent conclusion to the series of Baroque operas on the stage of the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. Such evenings offer a unique opportunity to be transported to moments far away from us, to eras remote in style of performance, and to try to hear music as it sounded more than 300 years ago. And what is most beautiful is the fact that this time machine is available to everyone and brings great pleasure.

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