If ever there was a venue where the artistic impact of the building provides as much pleasurable anticipation – probably more – than the prospect of the show itself, it’s the Palais Garnier in Paris. Yes, the original home to the Phantom of the Opera, built over a hundred years before Andrew Lloyd Webber created the music of the night, it’s the most breath-taking structure, that gives you a sense of fabulous privilege just walking up the stairs on your way to locating your “fauteuils” in the “orchestre”.
All sorts of delights await you before the show starts. Of course, you must have pre-theatre drinkies. About the only thing available is a glass of champagne. Well that’s fine by me. I approached the bar where the lady before me was ordering “deux verres de champagne, s’il vous plaît”. “Oui monsieur?” enquired of me the formally dressed but quite friendly guy behind the counter, as he was preparing the champagnes for the lady in front. “Aussi deux verres de champagne pour moi, s’il vous plaît” I stumbled in response. The lady beamed at me in recognition of a champagne comrade. “Vive la champagne!” she said, joyously. “Absolument” came my idiomatically iffy reply. Mrs C and I supped our delicious champagne (top quality, 12 euros for a small glass) whilst staring down over the grand vestibule.
Then you have to work out whereabouts in the auditorium you are sitting. You show your tickets to an usher and hope that you understand their directions. “Tout droit, au bout”. We got there ok. There must be a reason why the seat numbering system isn’t consecutive; Mrs Chrisparkle and I had seats 179 and 181, which were next to each other about seven rows back from the orchestra pit. In a UK theatre you’d think of them as seats G6-7. The auditorium is stunning. So lavishly baroque, apart from the 1964 Chagall ceiling that depicts scenes from 14 operas and which I think is rather splendid. And of course there is the central chandelier, that did once famously come crashing to the stalls and killed an unfortunate opéraphile, so be careful where you choose to sit.
We were there to see a post-Christmas performance of Angelin Preljocaj’s much-loved ballet Le Parc, which has been part of the Paris Opera’s repertoire for twenty years or so now. It contrasts courtly, romantic love as suggested by the Mozart chamber music that is played exquisitely by the Orchestre de Chambre de Paris under the direction of Koen Kessels, with the sexual motivation and tension that bubbles under the surface to a modern abstract soundtrack by Goran Vejvoda. As a result there are juxtaposing scenes of both pure 18th century ritualistic elegance, and 20th century direct physical contact. In Chaucerian terms, imagine the Knight going on a date with the Wife of Bath.
Now, this show has been running on and off since 1994 and I know it is considered to be something of a modern classic, but I have to confess I found most of it strangely unsatisfying. Much of the choreography was, I thought, tame and unadventurous, with a lot of repetition and I would guess largely unchallenging for the hugely skilful dancers on stage. If this were “Strictly Come Ballet”, Len Goodman would criticise it for having far too much posing and faffing around and not enough “Gertcha”. Much of it was very predictable as well. In the first act you witness a lot of chair repositioning; a male dancer will place a chair down on the stage surface with a loud clatter, which is the cue for a female counterpart to do precisely the same thing. And then another man. And then another woman. Stomp, stomp, stomp – clatter; stomp, stomp, stomp – clatter. Forgive me, but we’ve seen all that before; it’s not dancing, it’s removals. It wasn’t saying to me “I’ll test you with my aggressive-assertive behaviour and see if you respond”, but more like “that’s the last time I buy from Ikea”.
In the second act, there are eight (or so) posh ladies, one of whom faints. The other ladies gather round her, get her back on her feet, and all is well. Then, blow me down, another lady faints. They gather round her too, reinstate her vertically, and she’s ok. You’ll never guess what happens next. Yes! Another lady faints. The same sequence is repeated ad nauseam until every one of them has had need of the smelling salts. This is not dancing. At primary school they might have called it “music and movement”. It really was tremendously tedious. The framework of the whole ballet is to have regular reappearances of four gardeners, who make slow modern shapes to abstract technothrob, and who were more athletic than artistic in my view.
For sure, there are some tremendous scenes. At our performance the chief roles were danced by Aurélie Dupont and Nicolas Le Riche, and they are simply superb. A brilliant pas de deux towards the end involved Mlle Dupont clinging hold of M le Riche’s neck as he swung her round and round; an extraordinary display of trust and elegance that stood out as a stunning visual image. There was also a rather beguiling scene where various ladies and gentlemen followed each other round stylistic tree trunks in a playfully coquettish game of catch. Not a lot of dancing involved but it was charming.
Whether or not they scheduled this dance for shortly after Christmas as being the perfect choreography for performers who’ve enjoyed too much dinde over the festive period, I don’t know. Certainly for much of the time the dancers weren’t required to do much more than walk around and do some finger pointing. Sadly there’s no interval; not having an interval at the Palais Garnier deprives you of twenty minutes relaxing in luxurious surroundings. The show lasts just over an hour and half as it is, and on reflection I might guess that with an interval a number of people wouldn’t bother returning for the final act. The very keen balletomane on Mrs C’s right who looked all agog before the show started spent the final act with his head in his hands as if trying to work out where it all went wrong. I feel his pain. This was the third, possibly fourth time we’ve seen the Opera de Paris at the Palais Garnier and it’s the first time where the applause at the end was respectful instead of wildly enthusiastic. Oh well, on ne peut pas être gagnant dans tout, as I’m sure they don’t say in French.