One event that most tourists would deem once-in-a-lifetime occurrence - that is, if they’re lucky enough to get their hands on an entry ticket - is attending a performance at the Palais Garnier. Along with Opera Bastille, the palace forms the National Opera of Paris. By way of some blessing (obviously), I got the chance to spend nearly 4 hours in Palais Garnier - a venue that stands among the most significant testimonials of 19th century Parisian architecture. A source of mystery and enchantment, it is undeniably, one of the most distinguished and sumptuous opera houses in the world.
It was practically by chance that a couple of months ago I decided to scroll through the ballet program at the Opera. I knew tickets were already sparse and expensive but as hope dies last, I delved into my research. They were running Tchaikovsky’s Onéguine. I skipped through the dates - not that many were left that lacked the red alert “Fully booked”. Disheartening. In that full room of over 1,600 spectators, less than 10 seats were remaining available for each. Most of those were situated in such a way that their occupant would have minimal, if any view of the stage.
February 17th was one date I was gravitating towards. I spotted a seat on the third floor on the left of the theatre - "loge 17, place 3". Luckily for me, I came across an article by previous visitors who had booked the same seat. I decided to trust their opinion which stated that the view allowed you to see the entire stage at a reasonable price (about 40€ without a discount).
I got at Place de l’Opera a little over an hour before the beginning of the performance. I had sufficient time to walk around and inspect the façade. The opulent exterior ornamentation boasts an abundance of marble friezes, columns, and lavish statuary that portray deities of Greek mythology and the names of various composers.
At some point, security came out and we were let in. I was quick to get the program and proceeded to line before red barriers right in front of the Grand Staircase - one of the most renowned features of the building, it represents a large ceremonial staircase of white marble with a balustrade of red and green marble, which divides into two divergent flights of stairs that lead to the Grand Foyer.
The interior consists of interweaving corridors, stairwells and alcoves, allowing the movement of large numbers of people and space for socializing during intermission. Rich with velvet, gold leaf, cherubim and nymphs, the interior is characteristic of Baroque grandeur. So many symbols of the performing arts have been entwined and engraved into the palace’s walls to tell the history of its creators.
Prior to the opening of the Palais Garnier, the Paris Opera was situated on rue Le Peletier. On the 14th January 1858, Napoleon III survived an assassination attempt on his way to the theatre. The affair led the Emperor to demand that a new opera house be built which secured a separate and well-protected entrance for him.
Construction began in 1861 but workers soon encountered an unexpected hitch. While attempting to lay the foundations for the nearly 2,000-seat Opera, a seemingly endless flow of water bubbled up from the swampy ground. Nobody seemed able to stem the spring.
Thirteen years later, in 1874, architect Charles Garnier’s neo-baroque masterpiece, Le Palais Garnier, was complete.
But along with the initial water well, rumors of a vast, fish-filled lake swirling beneath the building had sprung too. One Parisian who grew up with this gossip was the detective and writer Gaston Leroux who would use the tale as the inspiration behind his gothic love story The Phantom of The Opera in 1910. The claims he would stick to even on his deathbed have left the Paris Opera shrouded in mystery ever since.
I wouldn't say the building's corridors have any particular air of spookiness to them, although the airy atmosphere of the high ceilings and wide halls do make you wonder who used to roam the theater. One creepy bit I missed was the actual booth of the phantom - No 5, where you can see a plaque entitled "Loge du phantom de l'Opéra".
Back to the Grand Foyer which offered champagne bars - and I took advantage of them. No doubt, that was the highlight of my visit. This huge hall was intended as a place to take a break, mingle, maybe talk some business. It's not a coincidence that it's located right outside the highest paying boxes.
Garnier cooperated on the making of this exquisite hall with Paul Baudry, who specialized in painting Sistine Chapel replicas. Garnier opted for using a mix of gold and gold paint, as he came to the conclusion that in many cases, gold paint brings out more details in an object when observed from far away.
Another area I sadly didn't visit were the sun and moon rooms. The ceilings represent the sun and the moon and stars, and are painted in gold and silver. An interesting feature are the "infinity mirrors". Apparently, the Salon du Glacier's located in the same vicinity – a bright rotunda loaded with paintings and sculptures that pay tribute to contemporary celebrities.
I didn't see the balcony either. I'm pretty sure you can’t actually see the bees grown on the Opera's roof from there. To think that over 300 kg of honey are produced every year, some of which you can buy in the gift shop before the exit.
The auditorium's simply magical with the abundance of fine details. The main highlight is the famous Chagall ceiling and the 8-ton chandelier hanging down.
The ballet was, obviously, flawless. The costumes and background were intricately designed, and the Corps de ballet gave an emotional performance, flawlessly executed, testimonial of which was the wave of applause and the echoing bravo’s at the end.
Although the Opera offers guided tours, I’m thinking of taking advantage of the cheap tickets and last-minute seats left, for which I’ll have to queue an hour before the event. A revisit will definitely be worth it!