After the fire at the Palais Royal’s theatre, the architect Nicolas Lenoir had promised Marie-Antoinette that he would build a new theatre within three months. Thanks to two teams of workers, construction continued day and night at 18 Boulevard Saint Martin, and the first performance took place on October 27 1781 with Piccinni’s Adèle de Ponthieu. The theatre was similar in size to that of the Palais Royal and could accommodate 1,800 spectators in four rows of boxes.
For the Opera, it proved to be something of a golden age: in less than fifteen years, 41 productions were staged, including works by Grétry, Sacchini, Philidor and Salieri. 1784 saw the performance of the first opera composed by a woman: Tibulle et Délie by Mademoiselle de Beaumesnil. And Mme. Saint-Huberty for her part was the uncontested star of the troupe.
But the Opera also had financial difficulties as well as a problem with gambling and morals. “After dinner” balls were held in the theatre in addition to performances as a means to increase revenues. In 1788, Dauvergne was named director and given the mission to clean up the institution. However revolutionary upheaval would add a new twist to the Opera’s history.µ
On July 12 1789, mobs stormed the auditorium and the theatre remained closed until July 21. The swords and sabres in the Opera’s storeroom, normally deployed as props in productions, were actually used during the storming of the Bastille. When the theatre reopened, the Opera presented Rousseau's play Le Devin du village as well as Lemoyne’s Les Prétendus, in an evening to raise money for those injured at the Bastille to which the Queen herself donated 720 livres.
The new municipal authorities revised the conditions governing the Opera’s existence. The cancellation of the Royal letters of patent in 1791 created a free theatre which allowed singers to have their names featured on the theatre posters. In 1792 the repertoire changed, as the emphasis now was on “patriotic productions”: Méhul, Martini, Cherubini and Pleyel all composed for the Republic. Gossec’s Le Triomphe de la République (performed six days after the death of Louis XVI), Jadin’s Le Siège de Thionville as well as L’Hymne à la Liberté, a reworked version of Rouget-de-Lisle’s La Marseillaise, all appeared on the stage of the Opera.
On April 16 1794, the Committee of Public Safety ordered that the Opera be transferred to the Théâtre National which in turn was renamed the Théâtre des Arts. The Théâtre de la Porte Saint-Martin, however, was not entirely abandoned: it became a workshop and storage space for the Opera.