The second theatre at the Palais Royal replaced the one in the Rue Valois that had burned to the ground in 1763. Pierre-Louis Moreau-Desproux was the architect who oversaw the building’s construction. As such, he created one of the first modern theatres with seats arranged in a semi-circle rather than just lengthwise. With its four rows of boxes, 2,500 spectators could attend performances at the Opera. Moreau, having experienced the unfortunate events of the previous years, also installed water tanks is case of fire.
The first performance in the new theatre took place on January 26 1770 and featured Rameau’s Zoroastre. This particular period at the end of the 18th century was one of turbulent change for the Opera. In the theatre, the audience was often extremely unruly—especially in the stalls where there was standing room only—so armed guards would often intervene to re-establish public order. Even though prices quadrupled when the king attended a performance, the Opera made most of its profits from the balls held in the main auditorium. From an artistic standpoint, the Opera underwent a “musical revolution” with the arrival of Gluck. It was he who proposed lowering the curtain between each act to allow for the set changes which until then had been carried out in full view of the audience. In 1774, his Iphigénie en Aulide and Orphée et Eurydice were staged, followed by Alceste in 1776. At the same time, a bitter dispute erupted between the proponents of Piccinni and the champions of Gluck which would continue to rage until 1781 when the theatre at the Palais Royal was again ravaged by fire.
It would be against this conflictual backdrop that the first opera-pantomimes would see the light of day and replace the opera-ballet—a process that would begin in December 1770 with Jean-Benjamin de Laborde’s Ismène et Isménias, the first piece written for the new theatre. Noverre’s ballet, Les Petits Riens, performed in the summer of 1778, was composed by Mozart and proved to be a far greater success than Piccinni’s opera, Le finte gemelle which was also on the bill at the same performance. The director, De Vismes hired numerous people to work at the Opera (there were 280 in 1770), with the intention of enacting change. However, his efforts to reform the institution were hampered by financial problems and ultimately dashed by the major fire of June 8 1781. That incident left 12 dead and destroyed all the sets.
Lenoir, the Queen’s architect, proposed rebuilding a theatre in three months. In the interim, the Opera relocated to the Hôtel des Menus-Plaisirs.