During the French Enlightenment, the theatre became a place where political and social ideas were considered myths and superstitions were tested. As more Enlightenment thinkers began to question the tenets of religion, many eighteenth-century citizens began to replace the pulpit with the stage, and looked to the theatre for their moral instruction as well as entertainment. The nobility had a lot to do with the uprising of theatre during this time. Louis XIV, who is known as the "Sun King" for playing the allegorical character of the sun in "The Ballet of the Night" in 1653, moved his royal court from the capital, Paris, to Versailles, aspiring to get more control of the government. The Opera, which was built for Louis XV, however, was not built until later. His mistress, Marie de Pompadour, patronized artists, actors, and musicians while bankrupting France. Meanwhile, the aristocracy and church paid no taxes, and the bourgeoisie picked up the tab for the monarchy's tastes and fun. Yet, it was not until after the death of Louis' mistress that the construction of the Opera began.
Long before the Opera Royal was dreamed of, theatre was becoming an important part of French society. Beginning with the reign of Louis XIII, the frequency and regularity of theatrical performances had increased: the show was considered as much an entertainment as it was an expression of power The idea of it being an expression of power can be traced to one of Louis XIII’s regents, Cardinal Richelieu. Richelieu wanted to create an image of the king (and France) that displayed well roundedness in all thing, a society who dabbled not only in politics or court, but music and art and theatre. He envisioned a force to lead the way, culturally. Attending a theatrical performance was quickly becoming a sign of stature, and though few permanent theatre spaces were created at this time, theatre found itself performed anyway. It is pertinent to note that until the final installation of the Versailles court, performances of operas and ballets, comedies and tragedies, were performed mainly in the gardens
Soon, however, spaces that were frequently used for performances would become specific performance spaces. In time the royal residences equipped themselves little by little with fixed theatres, although they often continued to use temporary structures and installations one could disassemble in various places: galleries, staircases, lounges, gardens These staged productions were important for many reasons. Little divertissements for the court, they also were at times used by royalty for their own reasons. Louis XIV’s performance during the Ballet de la nuit, for example, was a statement of his power, his coming of age, and the fact that he was ready to take the throne with no regents. Indeed, his performance as Apollo is what earned him the name Sun King. Interestingly enough, stage productions such as operas and ballets were important during the reigns of the Bourbon monarchs in France. Louis XIV in particular employed these and similar art forms extensively not only to entertain the noblemen in his court but also to promote his own self-image and the gloire of his country. Although he desired an Opera for his beloved Versailles, during the second half of Louis' reign, most operas, ballets and other staged divertissements for court and the public appeared indoors, in theatres or in other sites arranged as required for individual productions.
During the early years of his reign of Louis XIV, theatres were often temporary structures, built for a particular event and destroyed after their use. The first such theater was constructed for the fête of the Plaisirs de l’Île enchantée, which was held in 1664. In the area west of what is now the Bassin d’Apollon, a temporary theater was constructed in which Molière’s Princesse d’Élide débuted on 8 May. During this fête an additional theatre was erected inside the chateau for the presentation of three other plays by Molière: Les Fâcheux, Le Mariage Forcé, and Tartuffe, which premiered in an incomplete, albeit contentious, form. None of these theatres survived this fête.
The Grand Divertissement royal of 1668, which celebrated the end of the War of Devolution, witnessed the construction of a luxurious temporary theater built in the gardens on the site of the future Bassin de Bacchus. Constructed of papier-mâché, which was either gilded or painted to resemble marble and lapis lazuli, the theater seated 1,200 spectators who attended the debut of Molière’s George Dandin on 18 July 1668. As with the Plaisirs de l’Île enchantée, this theater was destroyed shortly after the end of the fête.
The third fête or, more accurately, a series of six fêtes - Les Divertissments de Versailles - were held in July and August 1674 to celebrate the second conquest of Franche-Comté. The fête featured a number of theatrical productions that were staged throughout the grounds in temporary theaters. On 4 July, Lully’s Alceste was performed for the court in the Cour de Marbre; on 11 July, Quinault’s L'Églogue de Versailles was staged near the Trianon de Porcelaine; eight days later, the Grotte de Thétys served as the setting for Molière’s le Malade Imaginaire; and Racine’s Iphigénie debuted on 18 August in a theater constructed in the Orangerie.
In spite of the need for a permanent theater at Versailles, it would not be until 1681 that a permanent structure would be built. In that year, the Comptes des Bâtiments du Roi record payments for a theater that was constructed on the ground floor of the chateau between the corps de logis and the Aile de Midi. The interior of the theater – known as the salle de la Comédie – contained a semicircle of row seating with loges set into the bays of the lateral walls. On the south wall of the theater, abutting the wall of the Escalier des Princes, was the royal tribune, which contained a central room octagonal loge and two smaller loges on either side. The salle de la Comédie would function as a de facto permanent theater at Versailles until 1769, when it was destroyed in order to provide direct access to the gardens from the Cour Royale.
In 1688, Louis XIV ordered a small theater to be constructed in the north wing of the Grand Trianon. This structure was destroyed in 1703 to accommodate a new apartment for the king.
Because the salle de la Comédie was designed for stage plays, Versailles lacked a theatre in which more elaborate productions could be staged. For larger productions, the Grand Manège (the covered riding arena) in the Grand Écurie was converted for more elaborate entertainments, but the space had limitations. In 1685, Louis XIV approved plans for the construction of a larger permanent theater that could the more elaborate productions, such as pièces à machines.
The pièces à machines were theatrical presentations using ballet, opera, and special staging effects that required a theatre that could accommodate the complicated machinery used in the production of these plays. The Salle des Machines at the Tuileries Palace in Paris, designed by Carlo Vigarani, was the closest to Versailles. However, with Louis XIV’s dislike for Paris – due in large part to his flight from the Tuileries in 1651 – and his increasing wish to keep his court at Versailles, the king approved the construction of a larger theater in 1685. With a plan more grandiose than the theatre of the Tuileries, the construction of this new theatre was much lauded by contemporary descriptions of Versailles.
Construction was planned for the northern end of the Aile des Nobles, and was well underway when the War of the League of Augsburg, which began in 1688, permanently halted construction. It would not be until the reign of Louis XV that construction on this site would resume.
With the return of the court to Versailles in 1722, spaces used by Louis XIV were once again pressed into service for the needs of the court. In 1729, as part of the festivities in celebration of the birth of the dauphin, a temporary theatre was constructed in the Cour de Marbre. The salle de la Comédie and the Manège of the Grand Écurie continued to be used as they had during the reign of Louis XIV.
However, owing to Louis XV proclivity for more a more intimate theater, a number of temporary theaters known as the théâtres des cabinets were created. These theaters were most often constructed in one of the rooms of the petit appartement du roi, with the petite galerie being the most frequently used starting from 1746. In 1748, the Escalier des ambassadeurs was converted into a theatre, in which the Marquise de Pompadour staged and acted in a number of plays. Two years later, the theatre was dismantled when the Escalier des ambassadeurs was destroyed for the construction of the appartement de Madame Adélaïde.
Acutely aware of the need for a larger and more permanent theater, as early as the 1740s Louis XV, seriously considered reviving Louis XIV’s plans for a permanent salle de spectacle to be constructed at the northern end of the Aile de Nobles. However, owing to the Seven Years’ War, construction would not be able to commence for nearly 20 years. When fire destroyed the Grand Écurie and the theatre of the Manège in 1751, and since the salle de la Comédie had become an unfeasible venue due to its size for theatrical productions, Louis XV finally authorized Ange-Jacques Gabriel to design the Opéra in 1763.
Construction work on the Opéra began in earnest in 1765 and was completed in 1770. Gabriel reverted to an old design by J.H. Mansart and Gaspare Vigarani: the Salle des Ballets, at the far north end of the château, which had been abandoned at the outbreak of the War of the Spanish Succession. The terminal pavilion of the north wing, intended for this, had been carried up to its full height only on the garden side; on the street side it had advanced no further than the foundations. At the time, it represented the finest example in theatre design, having 712 seats, and it was the largest theatre in Europe. Today, it remains one of the few 18th century theaters to have survived to the present day. Gabriel’s design for the Opéra was exceptional for its time since it featured an oval plan. As an economy measure, the floor of the orchestra level can be raised to the level the stage, thus doubling the floor space. The transition from the auditorium to the stage is managed by the introduction of a giant order of engaged Corinthian columns, with a cornice ranging with the whole Ionic entablature. The proscenium is formed by two pairs of columns, coupled in depth, with their entablature. On either side two more pairs, more widely spaced, enclosed with three tiers of boxes. Breaking with traditional Italian-style theatres which stacked tiered boxes like chicken coops, two balconies ring the house, topped by an ample colonnade that seems to extend into infinity thanks to a play of mirrors. It was planned that the Opéra should serve not only as a theatre, but as ballroom or banqueting hall as well. The theatre burned ten thousand candles in a single setting, therefore making it very expensive to rent the space out.
It opened May 16, 1770, with Lully's Persée.
On 1 October 1789, the gardes du corps du roi held a banquet to welcome the Flanders Regiment, which had just arrived to strengthen protection for the royal family against the revolutionary rumblings that were being heard in Paris. At this banquet, Louis XVI, Marie-Antoinette, and the dauphin received the pledge of loyalty from these guards. Revolutionary journalist Jean-Paul Marat described the banquet as a counter-revolutionary orgy, with the soldiers ripping off the blue-white-red cockades they had been wearing and replacing them with white ones, the color that symbolized the Bourbon monarchy. In truth, there is no evidence of this act, and actual eyewitnesses and attendees, such as the queen's lady of the bedchamber Madame Campan, record no such destruction of cockades. This was the last event held in the Opéra during the Ancien Régime.
Built entirely of wood, which is painted in faux marble to represent stone, the Opéra has excellent acoustics and represents one of the finest examples of neo-classical decoration. The theme of the decoration is related to Apollo and the Olympian deities. The decoration of the Opéra was directed by Augustin Pajou, who executed the bas-reliefs panels that decorate the front of the loges. The ceiling features a canvas by Louis Jean-Jacques Durameau in which Apollo and the Muses are depicted.
In spite of the excellent acoustics and the opulent setting, the Opéra was not often used during the reign of Louis XVI, largely on grounds of cost. However, for those occasions when the Opéra was used, they became events of the day. Some of the more memorable uses of the Opéra during the reign of Louis XVI included:
5 May 1777: Revival of Jean-Philippe Rameau’s, Castor et Pollux
for the visit of the Emperor Joseph II, Marie-Antoinette’s brother.
23 May 1782: Revival of la Reine de Golconde
by Michel-Jean Sedaine;
29 May 1782: Revival of Christoph Willibald Glück’s opera, Iphigénie en Aulide
and the revival of Maximilien Gardel’s ballet Ninette à la Cour
8 June 1782: Dress ball held in honor of the visit of the comte and comtess du Nord, the Grand Duke Paul and Grand Duchess of Marie Feodorovna of Russia who were traveling incognito.
14 June 1784: Revival of Glück’s Armide
for the visit of Gustav III of Sweden.
Originally used only for royal ceremonies and extraordinary performances, this pinnacle of the Gabriel family’s work began to be used less and less because of the immense cost to stage productions there. During the period of its usage, however, it was a beautiful example of royal lavishness and love for theatrical performances, and the fact that attending opera was once again the fashionable thing to do for the upper class, thanks in part to Queen Marie Antoinette’s patronage, should not be underestimated.
When the royal family left Versailles in October 1789, the château and the Opéra were closed. While the château did see some activity under Napoléon I (redecoration of the parts of the queen’s apartment for the empress Marie-Louise) and Louis XVIII, the Opéra did not reopen again until 1837, when Louis-Philippe redecorated the theater and presented Molière’s Le Misanthrope. During the state visit of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert the Opéra Royal was converted into a banquet room for a gala dinner on 25 August 1855. This was to be one of the most elaborate events staged at Versailles during the Second Empire.
In 1872, during the Commune de Paris, the Opéra was converted by Edmond de Joly for use by the Assemblée nationale, who used the Opéra until 1876; between 1876 and 1879, the Sénat convened here.
1952-1957 witnessed major restoration of the Opéra – generally considered one of the finest restoration projects undertaken at Versailles – when it was restored under the direction of André Japy to its 1770 state (Verlet, p. 384). The Opéra officially reopened on 9 April 1957 in the presence of Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom, with a presentation of Act II of Rameau’s Les Indes Galantes. Since its restoration, the Opéra has been used for state functions as well as a variety of operatic and musical events (Langlois, 1958).
The Opéra was most recently closed in June of 2007 for an extensive two year renovation to bring the backstage and production areas up to safety standards. During this latest renovation, led by chief architect of Historical Monuments Frédéric Didiera, a new firewall was installed, the downstage timberframe stairs were restored to their original purpose, stage and lighting equipment were modernized, the technical grid was redone, dressing rooms were moved and brought up to modern standards, and adjacent spaces formerly given over to the Sénat, including the Actor's Building, were reclaimed to once again accommodate the needs of performers, workshops, and offices. The Opéra reopened its doors in September of 2009, and has since carried out an expanded and ambitious regular series of operatic, balletic, and concert performances, especially celebrating the works of the Baroque and Classical periods most closely associated with the Opéra and the Palace of Versailles.
Today, with its superb acoustics and magnificent décor, the Opéra represents one of the finest 18th century opera houses in Europe. The importance of the Opéra Royal is directly linked to the history of the many theatres at Versailles and the history of theatrical stagings in 17th and 18th century France.