Verdi, Wagner and the Paris Opera
from 17 December 2013 to 16 March 2014
Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) and Richard Wagner (1813-1883) both loved Paris passionately. Just a few years after the unsuccessful reception of his Tannhäuser in Paris, Wagner said to Ludwig II of Bavaria: “Paris is the heart of modern civilization. […] In the past, when I wished to become a famous composer, my good genius immediately led me to this heart.” Verdi even wrote to Léon Escudier, his Parisian impresario: “These theatres of the famous capital are such a beautiful thing!”
The tumultuous relationships between Giuseppe Verdi, Richard Wagner and the Paris Opera have already been the subject of studies and several exhibitions, particularly at the Palais Garnier. Yet, none of these has ever focused on each of the composers’ relationships with the ‘Grande boutique’. However, these two contemporary artists brought to the Opera a novel conception of both the operatic genre and the stage. The exhibition is jointly organized by the Bibliothèque Nationale de France and the Paris Opera on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of the birth of both composers. It re-examines the place of Verdi and Wagner’s monumental and reforming work in the repertoire, from the opening night of Jerusalem in 1847 to the ten performance days for the four parts of Richard Wagner’s L’Anneau du Nibelung in 2013.
An Opera dedicated to Verdi
Wagner and Verdi both aimed to conquer Paris and its Opera. Yet, they followed very different paths. Did the German composer suffer from his avant-gardism? Certainly; but Wagner’s choices about the libretto , the performers, the absence of ballet also stand for his desire to free himself from the Maison’s habits. Convinced of his worth, he certainly wished to cut corners and ultimately did not give himself the means to be recognized by the Parisian audience. Verdi also had to face many disappointments in his relationships with the ‘Grande Boutique’ but he always adjusted his behaviour when necessary. The sheer number of performances speaks for itself. In 1861, Tannhäuser is performed only three times, of minor interest compared to the seven original opening nights of Verdi’s operas, 249 performances in total since the opening night of Jerusalem . In 1875, on the opening ceremony of the Palais Garnier, Verdi can admire his bust over one of the façades. Because of the unsuccessful Tannhäuser , the 1870 defeat and the anti-French feelings he is said to have, such a praise is then unthinkable for Wagner… until the creation of Lohengrin .
The scandal of Tannhäuser
In 1861, the scandal of the opening night of Tannhäuser is undoubtedly one of the founding moments of the Wagnerian myth: hissed and booed, the work is rapidly taken off. The failure is generally imputed to the famous conspiracy from the Jockey Club frustrated from having missed the ballet that Wagner had put in the first act and not in the second as usual. This anecdote is often recalled to illustrate the ignorance of the Parisian audience unable to understand the visionary genius of Richard Wagner. As in any legend, the reality is undoubtedly a bit distorted. In truth, the anecdote about the ballet may have been overestimated and the audience most probably made the composer pay for his Lettre sur la musique , published a few months before in 1860, in which Wagner outlined all the negative aspects he perceived within the French tradition.
The fact remains that Tannhäuser was performed only three times, the only three performances of Wagner’s works staged at the Opera in the composer’s lifetime. The affront will be avenged in 1895 when the composer’s widow, Cosima Wagner, imposes Tannhäuser when La Walkyrie and Les Maîtres chanteurs de Nuremberg enter the repertoire. Today, Tannhäuser is performed in the French version retranslated into German waiting for the original French version that may enter the repertoire some day.
Setting and staging
Verdi and Wagner both recognised that there is an outstanding quality of the theatrical genius at the Opera; a genius renowned throughout Europe. The Wagnerian setting is also a Parisian speciality, even before the Opera has done any performance of one of Wagner’s works: as soon as 1845, the German composer asked Edouard Despléchin, one of the Opera’s stage designers, to work on the creation of Tannhäuser in Dresden. In 1861, Despléchin’s setting is adapted to the revival; but, in 1875, the composer still presents it to the Director of Vienna Opera as the model to follow. Deeply influenced by Francesco Hayez’ historical paintings, Verdi also attached great importance to setting and staging. He even made ‘stage measures’ carefully drawn up and published in 1856. The miniature theatre that allowed him to adjust stage business for Falstaff is also a striking example of his major interest in the setting. While composing, Verdi saw the corresponding image on stage and consequently demanded a lot from stage designers. Few stage designers found favour with him even if he recognised that the “faraway effect” he liked so much was so well achieved at the Opera. In 1871, the talent of the Paris Opera stage designers is acknowledged with the creation of Verdi’s Aïda , in Cairo. The Egyptologist and librettist Auguste Mariette called them the ‘best designers in the world’.
Wagner is dead, long live Wagner!
On September 16th, 1891, the opening night of Lohengrin marks the end of Verdi’s omnipresence at Paris Opera and a significant transformation of both Verdi’s and Wagner’s places in the repertoire. Wagner is now in fashion and the triumph of Lohengrin leads the management of the institution to plan other works by Wagner with the same success: La Walkyrie in 1893, Tannhäuser in 1895, Les Maîtres chanteurs in 1897, Siegfried in 1902, Tristan and Isolde in 1904. This renewed popularity is even intensified by the decoration of the Palais Garnier. In 1903, a bust of the composer is sculpted by Jean-Louis Bozzi and placed in the public spaces of the theatre. This policy is still increased by André Messager and Leimistin Broussan, who collaborate to manage the Opera in 1908. Several opening nights of Wagner’s works are then performed during their tenure: the Crépuscule des Dieux in 1908, L’Or du Rhin in 1909 and Parsifal in 1914. The two directors also plan four performances in full of L’Anneau du Nibelung between 1911 and 1913. Eventually, between 1908 and 1914, over a quarter of works performed at the Opera are Wagner’s works: 366 Wagnerian evenings out of 1374 performances. On the other hand, no new work by Verdi enters the repertoire between the opening night of Othello in 1894 and the one of Falstaff in 1922. Until 1945 – except for periods of war conflicts – performances of Wagner’s works at Paris Opera outnumber Verdi’s.
War conflicts and ideological programming choices
Excluded from the Opera’s repertoire during the First World War, Wagner’s works are performed again by January 5th 1921. Then, as soon as 1931, with the intention of the easing policy in Franco-German relationships, German singers are invited at the Palais Garnier to perform Wagner’s works in the original language. The Second World War puts an end to these friendly tours. Closed on September 1st 1939 because of general mobilization, the theatre reopens on November 16th and keeps programming a significant part of German operas (20%) and the same number of operas by Verdi. But the management must renounce to plan Wagner’s works. In fact, at the beginning of the Occupation, Wagner’s works programmed by the Opera remain strictly controlled by services of Nazi propaganda which impose tours of German operatic companies performing Wagner in German before the occupation forces. These performances stroke the minds and Wagner became involved against his own will in the policy of cultural collaboration led with the Paris German Institute; but despite this not many of his works performed at the Palais Garnier. The occupying forces’ directives do not lead to perform more of Wagner’s works – the Opera company performs Wagner in French – but rather to promote the ballet, enjoyed by the army in garrison. The Occupation period also stands for the beginning of lasting changes in the planning of works at Paris Opera where Wagner’s operas decrease compared to Verdi’s.
It is generally accepted that performers are either Verdian or Wagnerian performers. But the history of the Opera shows that many singers successfully negotiate the gap between these two extremes. Marie-Constance Sasse has the privilege of being the only singer working with both Verdi and Wagner, successfully performing both the ephemeral creation of Tannhäuser in 1861 and the difficult part of Elisabeth de Valois in Don Carlos. Her pupil, Rose Caron, caused a sensation at the opening night of Othello (1894) with Luc-Albert Saléza and Victor Maurel as partners. The latter invents with Verdi another type of singer-actor who foreshadows the future of the art of performing in the 20th century. In his footsteps, José Beckmans, Robert Massard, Ernest Blanc and Gabriel Bacquier perpetuate this exemplary school of the word.
After taking time to perform Wagner’s works, the Paris Opera builds a real French tradition of the Wagnerian singer: Rose Caron, Ernst van Dyck, Maurice Renaud, Blanche Deschamp-Jéhin, Francisque Delmas and Lucienne Bréval, but also Louise Gradjean, Albert Alvarez, Marcelle Demougeot and Agnès Borgo; all also perform Verdi, and Aïda in particular. Then, Régine Crespin, Suzanne Sarroca or Rita Gorr also easily performed both Wagner and Verdi. Both Paul Franz and Georges Thill as famous Wagnerian tenors also eventually became essential ‘Radamès’.
Verdi and Wagner today
In the post-second-world-war period, in an operatic context marked by the international aspect of casts and works performed, Verdi and Wagner remain the mainstays of the repertoire. If Verdi – the most frequently played composer worldwide - has moved ahead of Wagner - who is only in the fourth position – there is still a domain where Wagner surpasses his Italian counterpart: since the late fifties and the end of historical productions, each (or almost each) revival of one of Wagner’s works is a major event and offers the stage director the opportunity to reinterpret it passionately; certainly a way to escape the old Wagnerian demons and mainly the traumatic memories of Nazism which had long imprisoned the composer’s work. The fact is that it is impossible to remain indifferent in front of the staging: the setting (made up of stained-glass windows) by Leonor Fini for Tannhäuser (1963) and his costumes inspired by masterpieces of Western art; the Japanese-inspired spiked armours created by Moidele Bickel for La Walkyrie (1976); Bill Viola’s video by way of setting for Tristan and Isolde (2005)… Opera Directors probably all dream to present another Wagner’s Ring. Since 1957, the project has fuelled ambitions and regrets until 2013, when Nicolas Joël has presented Günter Krämer’s production at the Opéra Bastille. Can Verdi arouse such a large-scale project? This is the challenge of Aïda that returns to the repertoire 50 years later.
Mathias Auclair, conservateur en chef à la Bibliothèque-musée de l'Opéra, BnF
Simon Hatab, assistant à la direction de la dramaturgie de l'Opéra national de Paris
Pierre Vidal, conservateur général, directeur de la Bibliothèque-musée de 'Opéra, BnF
Verdi, Wagner et l'Opéra de Paris
sous la direction de Mathias Auclair, Christophe Ghristi et Pierre Vidal
Editions de la BnF
In collaboration with the Paris Opera Library-Museum (BIBLIOTHèQUE NATIONALE DE FRANCE )
The Opera Ballet
from 5 june 2013 to 1 september 2013
The historical exhibition takes place at the Bibliothèque-musée de l'Opéra. In the public areas, you will see the magnificient costumes of the repertoire and follow the "Chemin des Étoiles" where all the Étoiles of the Paris Opera Ballet are gathered from the creation of the title to present day.
On the occasion of the Tercentenary of the École Française de Danse, the Opéra National de Paris and the Bibliothèque Nationale de France are retracing the history of the Ballet de l'Opéra, from Louis XIV to the presentday.
Concerned with bringing a noble style to the performing arts and laying the foundations for the dancers to turn professional, the king created the Académie Royale de Danse in 1661. In 1669, the king also granted the poet Pierre Perrin the privilege of founding an Académied'Opéra, which was acquired by Lully in 1672. Thus the Opéra de Paris and its Ballet were created. At the end of his reign in 1713, Louis XIV decided to found a dance school within the Opéra: it was responsible for ensuring the quality of the performers. Initially reserved for adults, the school then opened to children in 1784 and remained faithful thereafter to its vocation of making the repertoire accessible and being open to creativity.
The history being recounted here is both that of the Ballet de l'Opéra de Paris and its school. From Pierre Beauchamp to Brigitte Lefèvre, the first directors of the École de Danse, Maximilien Gardel and Jean Dauberval to Élisabeth Platel, the exhibition explores the major institutional and aesthetic rifts. It also covers the appeal the Opéra's dancers held for painters such as Edgar Degas, the social aspect of ballet performances, important figures and the evolution of the company's repertoire: the introduction of ballet d'action and the role of Noverre in the 18th century, the birth and advent of Romantic ballet, the invention of Neoclassicism with Lifar, the part played by Balanchine, Robbins, Petit, Béjart, Cunningham, Carolyn Carlson, Forsythe and Nureyev, and the policy of encouraging creativity and openness towards important international choreographers, from Pina Bausch to Angelin Preljocaj.
Mathias Auclair et Christophe Ghristi
Mathias Auclair, conservateur en chef à la Bibliothèque-musée de l’Opéra
Christophe Ghristi, directeur de la dramaturgie à l’Opéra national de Paris
Martine Kahane, conservateur général
Madame Lily Safra, Grand mécène du Tricentenaire de l'Ecole française de danse
La publication d’un livre de référence sur l’histoire du Ballet de l’Opéra aux éditions Albin Michel, sous la direction de Mathias Auclair et Christophe Ghristi, est prévue en octobre 2013.
In collaboration with the Paris Opera Library-Museum (BIBLIOTHèQUE NATIONALE DE FRANCE )