History

of the Grand-Theatre

The history of the Grand Theatre of Bordeaux has been written over more than two centuries by the various events that have punctuated its past.

The first key event was the long-awaited inauguration of the theatre, on 7 April 1780. A vast crowd jostled in front of the gates of the new building. The public had not come only to see Athalie by Racine and the Judgement of Apollo by Bincourt, but above all to admire the architecture. Nearly seven long years had passed since the start of the works commissioned by the Governor of Guyenne, Louis Armand du Plessis, Duke of Richelieu, and the result did not disappoint! A veritable wonder stood before the public’s eyes. The talented architect Victor Louis had pulled out all the stops to give his work harmony, refinement, sobriety, strength, purity, elegance and nobility. Praise for this true masterpiece of 18th-century architectural art gushed forth at the time and still does today. In addition to the aesthetic value of the work, the building boasts exceptional acoustics thanks to the wooden structure surrounding it.

But the Grand Theatre is much, much more than the result of Victor Louis’ successful labour.

In the 19th century, it played host to some of the most famous artists, including Liszt, Cinti-Damoreau, Falcon, Viardot, Talma, Nourrit, Duprez, Rubini and Petipa. Time has moved on since then, but celebrated figures such as Fédor Chaliapine and Tito Schipa or, more recently, Placido Domingo, Gustav Leonhardt, Natalie Dessay and Cecilia Bartoli, still captivate audiences in Bordeaux.

In addition, multiple lyrical works have been created on this stage, including The Hand of Glory by Jean Françaix in 1950, Sampiero Corso by Tomasi in 1956 or, in later years the opera The Kings by Fénelon in 2004, without forgetting ballets from The Wayward Daughter by Jean Dauberval (1789) to Hydrogen Jukebox by Carolyn Carlson (1999) and Don Quichotte by Charles Jude (2006).

1990 and 1991 marked a turning point in the history of the theatre. Major restoration work was carried out with constant respect for the spirit of the building in order to repair the deterioration caused over time and adapt it to the requirements of modern scenography. One of the projects concerned the theatre auditorium. To make the space lighter and brighter, the old gold and red furnishing imposed in the 19th century was removed and replaced by the original decor combining blue, white and gold. Recent restoration work on the facades (completed in 2006) highlight the stunning achievement of Louis’s work.

But this renewal is in no way a sigh of nostalgia for the past. On the contrary. With each new show, a new page is written in the history of this magical venue.

Today, directed by Marc Minkowski, the Grand Theatre pursues its increasingly ambitious artistic programme and remains more than ever forward-looking.

An architectural masterpiece

The masterpiece by architect Victor Louis was inaugurated on 7 April 1780. Nearly seven years had passed since the start of the works commissioned by the Governor of Guyenne, Louis Armand du Plessis, Duke of Richelieu. A veritable “temple of the arts” built in a Neoclassical style stood before the eyes of the public. In addition to the aesthetic value of the work, the theatre house boasted exceptional acoustics thanks to the wooden structure surrounding it.

The Façade

The Grand Théâtre’s main façade comprises a portico of twelve Corinthian columns above which stand twelve statues – the nine muses and three goddesses of Classical mythology. Positioned from left to right, they represent Euterpe (muse of music), Urania (muse of astronomy), Venus (goddess of love), Calliope (muse of epic poetry and eloquence), Terpsichore (muse of dance), Melpomene (muse of tragedy), Thalia (muse of comedy), Polyhymnia (muse of rhetoric), Juno (goddess of fertility), Minerva (goddess of war), Erato (muse of lyric poetry) and Clio (muse of history). The statues were born from the imagination of Pierre Berruer and four of them were sculpted by his own talented hand (Thalia, Melpomene, Polyhymnia and Terpsichore). His assistant, Van den Drix, executed the eight remaining statues from his master’s plaster models. Not all twelve were finished for the official opening ceremony – the four sculpted by Berruer were only set in place some two years later.

Standing along the building’s prow and exposed to the full brunt of the wind and rain, time took its toll on the statues. Partial restoration was undertaken in the 1870s, during which certain portions were replaced and their overall structure reinforced. Eight of them were replaced in 1950. The copies were sculpted in Vilhonneur stone quarried in Luget and were executed by Benquet, Rispal and Callède, professors at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, in the studio of André Drapé, Place Gaviniès in Bordeaux.

In the late 18th century, there were no steps leading up to the building’s entrance, as the Place de la Comédie was much higher than it is today. It was only in 1848 that large-scale earthwork was carried out to lower the square, thereby initiating the addition of steps running the length of the front elevation. This had the optical effect of raising the building on a pedestal, an idea far removed from Louis’s original intention. He had designed a theatre which was part and parcel of the hustle and bustle of city life. Initially, coaches and cabs could draw up between the colonnade and the façade so that spectators could enter the theatre beneath the protection of the portico roof and escape the rain.

The façade of the Grand Theatre by Caroline Notari
The façade of the Grand Theatre by Caroline Notari

The façade of the Grand-Theatre

The Entrance Hall and Grand Staircase

The doors of the Grand Théâtre open onto a spacious entrance hall graced with sixteen fluted Doric columns, bearing the load of a flat coffered ceiling, heightened with carved roundels. A series of five archways then follows, the three central arches providing access to the grand staircase. The latter, of course, serves to take spectators up to the circle boxes, but its imposing breadth, low banisters and division into two elegant lateral flights, suggest an ulterior motive. For the staircase serves to stage the aristocracy, the dominant social class of the Ancien Régime.

Visitors would scale its elegant steps with their eyes naturally lifted towards the grand doorway, thereby adeptly showing off their fine apparel, of which an eloquent side view would be offered as they proceeded up the lateral flights. Once at the summit, the capacious landing would offer them an opportunity to linger and observe others making their entrances below. The layout and positioning of Louis’s celebrated staircase was in fact a stage set in its own right.

The Grand Staircase by Julien Fernandez
The Grand Staircase by Julien Fernandez

The Grand Staircase of the Grand-Theatre is visible in free entrance

The Main Auditorium or ‘Grande Salle’

Bedecked in blue, white and gold, the colours of the monarchy, the auditorium was built with a capacity of 1 700, slightly higher than its current capacity of 1 114 seats. This is explained by the fact that the circle was originally equipped with a supporting structure comprising six rows of benches, advancing from the first balcony towards the interior of the auditorium. The area between the foot of this platform and the current orchestral pit accommodated the throng of standing spectators.

Lighting

Victor Louis wished his theatre to offer spectators a high degree of modern comfort and designed the house lighting to spare those in the pit any unpleasantness or incovenience. Most playhouses of the day were lit by candle chandeliers, and the molten wax would drip down onto the heads of those unfortunate enough to be positioned below. The Grand Théâtre, however, had hundreds of candles positioned around the cornice of the dome, with girandoles (branched candle holders) affixed to the fluted columns of the dress circle, brilliantly illuminating the auditorium. The candle flames would flicker as gentle currents of air wafted around the interior, sending light dancing over the lavish gilding and creating a shimmering play of light and shade, a scintillating spectacle in its own right.

As time went by, so lighting techniques became more sophisticated. Candles were replaced by fish oil lamps in 1793, followed by quinquet oil lamps in 1805. Hydrogen gas was used in 1827, only to be replaced briefly by a return to oil lamps, before town gas was introduced in 1853.17 Electricity was installed at the end of the 19th century.

The chandelier we know today was fitted in 1917. It is Art Nouveau in inspiration, with opaque crystal roses at its centre, and was produced in the Parisian studios of the Raingo brothers. It weighs 1.2 tonnes, boasts nearly 400 lamps and is made from Bohemian crystal.

The Ceiling

In the late 18th century, painter Jean-Baptiste Robin was entrusted with the task of embellishing the dome of the main auditorium and work began in 1777. The theme elected by the artist was ‘Apollo and the muses accept the dedication of a temple erected by the City of Bordeaux.’ The tribute paid by the ceiling was three-fold - first to the arts, then to the craftsmen who built the theatre, and finally to the City of Bordeaux. The ceiling painting is both allegorical and realist in tenor. Stonemasons may be seen working at the building’s southwest corner and certain scenes depict the thriving activity of the busy city.

Artistic History

In the late 18th century, the Grand Theatre was home to nearly one hundred artists from all disciplines and offered an extensive repertoire. Today, under the direction of Marc Minkowski, the National Opera of Bordeaux - which performs most of its productions on this stage - comprises an even larger team of permanent artists. In addition to the 120 musicians in the National Orchestra of Bordeaux Aquitaine, there are 40 dancers in the Ballet and 40 singers in the Chorus of the National Opera of Bordeaux, not to mention the Painters, Sculptors and Dressmakers in the Set, Wardrobe and Props departments...

Over the course of its history from the 18th to the 21st century, the Grand Theatre has welcomed some of the most celebrated artists in plays, operas and concerts. The works performed reflect the changes in tastes among the public and the attitudes of the times.

Music

With the regular participation of the ensemble, today known as the National Orchestra of Bordeaux Aquitaine (ONBA), the Grand Theatre is a veritable temple to music. Numerous symphonic concerts and operas have been performed here under the baton of esteemed conductors such as Sir Thomas Beecham and Hans Knappertsbusch or, more recently, Alain Lombard, Kwamé Ryan and Paul Daniel (current Artistic and Musical Director of the ONBA). Famous recitals have been held here (by the violinist Kreutzer in 1795, Franz Liszt in 1845, the harpsichordist Gustav Leonhardt in 1997) and spectacular lyrical works have been premiered (The Hand of Glory by Jean Françaix on 7 May 1950, Sampiero Corso by Henri Tomasi on 6 May 1956, The Kings by Philippe Fénelon on 23 May 2004). Operas have been performed by celebrated singers, from the baritone Jean-Blaise Martin to Adolphe Nourrit, Gilbert-Louis Duprez, Laure Cinti-Damoreau, Fédor Chaliapine and Régine Crespin, with more recent performances by Plácido Domingo (1996), Natalie Dessay (1999) and Cecilia Bartoli (2010).

Theatre

The greatest highlights in the theatre productions include a performance by the famous actor Talma in Henry VIII or The Death of Anne Boleyn by Marie-Joseph Chénier on 14 October 1804. Sometime later, one famous evening in 1828, Berlioz's muse, the English actress Harriet Smithson, appeared in Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet. Although fewer plays were produced in the 20th century, the audience in Bordeaux nevertheless enjoyed a performance by the Comédie française (Scapin the Schemer, 1998) and Jean-Marie Villégier's L'Illustre Théâtre (Tartuffe, 1999).

Dance

It would be impossible to evoke the artistic history of the Grand Theatre without underlining the heartfelt passion that has always connected it with dance. Two men in particular contributed to establishing the excellent reputation for ballet in Bordeaux: Jean Dauberval (who produced numerous ballets on this stage, including The Wayward Daughter in 1789) and Marius Petipa who was made “Second First Dancer in all Genres” in 1844 and wrote his first works here. This choreographic tradition has continued ever since. The star and famous dancer Charles Jude, who arrived at the head of the National Opera of Bordeaux in 1996, developed the company’s repertoire, which today performs classical and neoclassical dances as well as contemporary works.

by Laurent Croizier