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Teatro di San Carlo, Naples, Italy
Palais Garnier, Paris, France - Famous Opera House
150    Dibyendu Banerjee    26/09/2022

Built from 1861 to 1875 for the Paris Opera, the primary opera and ballet company of France, founded by Louis IV as the Académie d'Opéra, the Palais Garnier, also known as Opéra Garnier is one of the jewels of Napoleon III's newly reconstructed city. Designed by Charles Garnier and located at the Place de l'Opéra, the 1979-seat opera house was initially referred to as le Nouvel Opéra de Paris or the new Paris Opera, which ultimately became known as the Palais Garnier, in memory of its architect. Besides being the most expensive building of its time, it has been described as the only unquestionably masterpiece of the first rank and the most spectacle among the buildings constructed in Paris during the Second Empire, the 18-year Imperial Bonapartist regime of Napoleon III, between the Second and the Third Republic of France.

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The building of the Palais Garnier, the home of the Paris Opera, concerts and ballet, is a splendid example of the unity of artistic creativity, reflecting a magnificent fusion of certain elements from the Baroque, the classicism of Palladio and Renaissance architecture. It combined axial symmetry with modern techniques and materials, including the use of an iron framework, which had been pioneered in other Napoleon III buildings. Its design was the result of an international design competition which was won by Charles Garnier.

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Influenced by many historical sources and movements, he designed the Palais Garnier in what he described as the Napoleon III style, in which the entire space is covered with colours and decorations. While the foundation of this structure was laid in 1862, the hall was inaugurated on 5 January 1875 with an act from La Juive by Halévy and excerpts from Meyerbeer’s Huguenots.

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Apollo, Poetry and Music

The 508 feet (154.9 m) long building of the opera house is 184 feet (56 m) from ground level to the apex of the stage fly tower and 105 feet (32 m) to the top of the façade. While it is 230 feet (70.2 m) wide at the lateral galleries, it is 332 feet (101.2 m) wide at the east and west pavilions. Seventeen different kinds of material were used for the façade, arranged in very elaborate multicoloured marble friezes, columns and lavish statuary, many of which depict deities of Greek Mythology, along with two gilded figures, L'Harmonie and La Poésie on its sides.

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Poetry, roof sculpture
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L’Harmonie, roof sculpture

The bases of the two avant-corps, common in façades in French Baroque architecture, are decorated with four major multi-figure groups known as Harmony, Instrumental Music, the Dance and Lyrical Drama. Several busts of many of the great composers, made of gilded galvanoplastic bronze, are located between the columns of the theatre's front façade.

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A structured group of Apollo, Poetry and Music is located at the apex of the south gable of the stage fly tower and there are two smaller bronze Pagasus at either end of the south gable.

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The ceiling of the octagonal salon at the eastern end

The interior of the opera house, consisting of interweaving corridors, stairwells, alcoves and landings, is lavishly decorated with velvet, gold leaf, cherubim and nymphs, reflecting the characteristics of Baroque sumptuousness. However, one of the magnificent features of the building is its grand white marble staircase, with a balustrade of red and green marble, which divides it into two divergent flights of stairs, leading to the Grand Foyer.

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The ceiling of the 59 feet (18 m) high, 177 feet (54 m) long and 43 feet (13 m) wide Grand Foyer, was painted by Paul-Jacques- Aimé describing various moments in the history of music. Designed to act as a drawing room for Paris society, the foyer opens onto an outside loggia and is flanked by two octagonal salons.

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The grand staircase

While the pedestals of the staircase are decorated with female torchères, several sculptures of eminent composers, animals and mythological figures decorate the stairs and a bust of the architect, Charles Garnier, watching them all from the foyer. The ceiling above the staircase was painted by French academic painter Isidore Pils to depict the Triumph of Apollo, Minerva fighting Brutality Watched by the Gods of Olympus, the Enchantment of Music Deploying its Charms and the City of Paris Receiving the Plan of the New Opéra. The ceiling of the theatre also boasts a colossal 220-metre-long painting by the modernist artist Marc Chagall. The auditorium has a traditional Italian horseshoe shape and the stage is large enough to accommodate as many as 450 artists. The canvas curtain of the stage was painted to represent a draped curtain, complete with tassels and braid. Electricity was installed in the building between 1881 and 1887 and much later, in 1932, the first radio broadcast of a live performance took place.

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View of the Grand Foyer looking east
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View of the Grand Foyer looking west

Elevators for carrying the employees and freight, especially for the moving of the stage scenery, were installed at the rear of the stage in the 1950s, followed by the installation of new electrical facilities in 1969. After that, part of the original Foyer de la Danse was converted by the architect Jean-Loup Roubert in 1978 and restoration work of the opera building began in 1994. The restoration work consisted of the modernisation of the stage machinery and electrical facilities, restoring by preserving the opulent décor, as well as strengthening the structure and foundation of the building. The project was completed in 2007. Although Garnier had originally planned to install a restaurant in the opera house, it was not completed in the original design due to a budget crunch. Ultimately, L'Opéra Restaurant, designed by French architect Odile Decq, was opened on the eastern side of the building in 2011. The restaurant, which has three different spaces and a large outside terrace, is accessible to the general public.

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The auditorium

Described by many as probably the most famous opera house in the world, the Palais Garnier is regarded as an iconic symbol of Paris like Notre Dame de Paris, Le Louvre and the Sacré-Cœur Basilica. The building also houses the Bibliothèque-Musée de l'Opéra National de Paris, a library and museum of the Paris Opers and a gift shop, containing several informative books, decorative candles, bags and junk jewellery. In addition to that, one can also find in the shop honey for sale, produced in the 5 beehives on the roof of the Palais Garnier.

Teatro di San Carlo, Naples, Italy
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Author Details
Dibyendu Banerjee
Ex student of Scottish Church College. Served a Nationalised Bank for nearly 35 years. Authored novels in Bengali. Translated into Bengali novels/short stories of Leo Tolstoy, Eric Maria Remarque, D.H.Lawrence, Harold Robbins, Guy de Maupassant, Somerset Maugham and others. Also compiled collections of short stories from Africa and Third World. Interested in literature, history, music, sports and international films.
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