The theatre de la Rue de Richelieu at the corner of Rue Louvois was built in 1793 on the grounds of a former mansion which Mademoiselle Montansier had acquired in 1791. As such, it was her own theatre that initially occupied the site, until she was falsely accused of trying, in a pique of jealousy, to set fire to the National Library across the street. Finally, on August 7 1794, the Committee of Public Safety installed the Opera in the building, which was renamed the Théâtre National and the Théâtre des Arts.
The new theatre, which offered seating in the stalls, could accommodate 2,800 spectators. It also boasted an orchestra pit that could house 54 musicians. If the revolutionary repertoire initially dominated in the Rue de Richelieu (Le Chant du Départ was performed for the first time at the Opera on September 29 1794), the era of the French Directory, followed by the Empire and the Restoration proved to be a new golden age for the Opera. Méhul and Grétry were the leading composers of the period, along with Lesueur and Persuis—even if their works have been lost to us with the passage of time. In 1805, Mozart’s Don Giovanni was first performed in a version reworked by Kalkbrenner. It was in this theatre that the tenor Lavigne electrified the opera with his ut de poitrine—a high C in chest voice which proved his technical virtuosity—and it was also here that the ballet Zéphire et Flore was performed featuring dancers suspended from invisible cords…
The Opera began to accrue an increasing number of privileges. In 1806, it became the only theatre permitted to host masked balls. In 1807, Napoléon I abandoned the system that had given theatres a modicum of freedom and once again bestowed the Opera with the sole right “to perform works set entirely to music and ballets of a noble and graceful nature”. The other entertainment venues were obliged to pay the opera a licence fee.
Although Louis XVIII was already considering building a new theatre for the Opera, the assassination of the Duc de Berry on February 13 1820 outside the theatre in the Rue de Richelieu hastened the institution’s relocation. The Opera was again temporarily moved to the Théâtre Favart, pending construction of the new building.