Opera in the South of France
Opera buffs – and they increase exponentially each year – will travel far and wide to indulge their passion.
Perhaps opera buffs should try coming to the South of France, which offers them a richly variegated choice of Opera House, from modern, to rich 19th c. Belle Epoque and immensely varied productions, performances, and stars. They can indulge their passion, without totally maxing out their holiday budget for the year, because opera is heavily subsidised in France, on the whole ticket prices can be reasonable, compared to the UK, and are not a king’s ransom as in London, at Covent Garden, or at Bayreuth, and all over the winter spring season, there will be a choice of reasonable hotels to choose from. Winter cum Spring is not a bad time to visit this region, no crowds, and reasonably mild weather on the coast.
One of the incredibly great pluses now to planning a holiday is that one can do everything via the Internet, planes, trains, opera tickets, hotels, you name it, you are no long dependent on an expensive travel organisation or agency, with their very possibly circumscribed itinerary – you can do it all for yourself!
A good hotel website to use is www.venere.com which allows some leeway for cancellations, and also does not immediately charge, it offers good choices, and descriptions.
Just think, there are opera houses at Montpellier, Marseille, Toulon, Nice, and Monte Carlo, the jewel in the crown. Do the names excite you? They should.
If one extended just beyond the French borders, one could start an exciting Opera Tour by flying in to Barcelona, Spain, starting at the Liceu Opera House, which fronts directly on Las Ramblas – it tends to go in for quite original and innovative productions – and then fly out of Genova, Italy’s major and rather ugly seaport, but which has a technically sophisticated opera house just five minutes walk from the old sea harbour, and some notable productions.
The Liceu, Barcelona, was destroyed by fire three times, just like La Fenice, Venice, and like La Fenice, rose again from its ashes, with the auditorium recreated as almost exact replicas of their originals – catastrophic fires did tend to be a fate for some opera houses, something to do with ancient lighting systems.
Or one could fly into Paris, then take the fast train south – the TGV that gets one from Paris to Marseille in 3 hours. And of course one can fly direct into Nice or Marseille, and also into the very delightful small airport of Toulon-Hyeres from Paris.
One could quite easily do a tour from Marseille via train along the coast, trains are comfortable and fast, timetables, prices, can all be looked up and booked via www.sncf.fr or rent a car, and take ones time, enabling a variety of side trips, off the main track.
Montpellier to the west of Marseille boasts a very modern opera house with an imposing façade, its 2000 seat opera house, the Salle Berlioz in its monumental Corum. It also has the Comedie, 19th century house right opposite. The former magnificent pink marble theater was designed by Strasbourg architect Claude Vasconi, the mastermind of Les Halles Forum in Paris.
Incidentally one way of checking out/buying tickets for all sorts of performances is via the French www.FNAC.com agency, one might pay an extra fee, but it could be time-saving, and useful.
The train journey between Marseille and Montpellier does involve at least one change, possibly two, something to be taken into consideration in any tour plan. One other useful note about Montpellier, if driving there, do get a really good map of the city centre, with all its one way systems marked up, otherwise, you might wind up in tears, trying desperately to find your way through its labyrinth! Montpellier is a very modern city, academic, and university campus, hosting most of France’s pharmaceutical companies and research institutions, who very likely are the Opera’s main supporters.
Marseille Opera House
Then one comes to Marseille Opera House, Municipal at one level, and Grand at every other level, its imposing colonnaded front gazes down over Marseille and its harbour. It too suffered from fire and its interior was totally destroyed to be rebuilt in 1924.
Marseille, like Monte Carlo, has the big bucks to pay for major performers, and so one will find its programme includes a recital by Nathalie Dessay (singing Michel Legrand) in December and for example in July, Berlioz’s “Les Troyens” featuring opera mega star Roberto Alagna, as Enee, and Beatrice Uria-Monzon, as Didon. Tickets in February (Strauss’s Elektra) range from around 25 to 77 euros, for the Alagna performances 25 to 90 euros.
Marseille, France’s second city is also now the European Capital of Culture, and has burst into a plethora of Art Exhibitions, displays, street festivals as never before. It all started off in January with every bell that has ever been, rung to the rafters city wide to announce this wonderful year, as a ”a great clamour”.
To find out all about the entertainments, street art, activities, Exhibitions, one just dips into the dedicated website www.mp2013.fr and voila.
Toulon Opera House
From Marseilles it is just a hop up the coast to Toulon – less than an hour by train – France’s Naval seaport and home to the naval dockyards. It is a mainly blue collar working town, but is home to a delightful, and my favourite, opera house. Built 150 years ago, around 1860, its Belle Epoque interior is for me a total delight, its walls decorated with superb murals, featuring buxom, apple cheeked, one would think Italian, ladies festooned with flowers, and offering garlands and baskets of fruits Perhaps an echo of the past when Italians from Piedmont flooded into France for work.
Just off the main drag it sits at the beginning of the pedestrianized old quarter of Toulon, just about 5 minutes from the harbour, surrounded by sentinel tall palm trees on either side, and restaurants. If one is lucky sometimes a drinks bar is opened on a top terrace that overlooks the harbour, over the ships, and ferries that ply to Corsica, so one sees the blue Mediterranean, quite an enchanting sight, otherwise the drinks bar on the first floor delights with its buxom lady murals.Toulon likely does not have the budget for major stars, but they do try to innovate. A couple of years ago, I attended a performance of Kurt Weill’s rarely performed ”Street Scenes” sung in English, a co-production. And this February they are together with the Opera-Theatre of Metz, putting on a production of Stephen Sondheim’s superbly melancholy musical ”Follies”” in English.
From Toulon one can catch a train for Nice, the trip takes slightly over two hours.
Nice Opera House
The Opéra de Nice was designed in stone and steel by Niçoise architect Francois Aune, a student of Gustave Eiffel, the famous pioneer of steel structure, with the guidance of Charles Garnier who designed the Paris Opera house, now called the Palais Garnier, and opened in 1885, with a performance of Aida.
Conventional and charming, it sits in the middle of the old quarter of Nice, whose ochre and russet buildings echo the architecture of Italy, not surprisingly as Nice was for a long time part of the Kingdom of Savoy.
Seating 1,093, the Opéra de Nice today hosts quality programs of opera, concerts and the ballet company has been expanding its repertoire to meet the demands of dance lovers. L’Orchestre Philharmonique de Nice, with its 98 musicians, is considered one of the best orchestras in the province. Upcoming is Mozart’s The Magic Flute, and Puccini’s Madame Butterfly. Tickets range from €12 to €78.
Monte Carlo Opera House
From Nice it is literally just a skip, 20 minutes by train to the real opera jewel of the region, the Monte Carlo Opera. Designed by Charles Garnier, in 1879 it tends to be known as the Salle Garnier to distinguish it from Garnier’s later Paris design and is his triumph, his version of a really truly luxurious theater for the rich.
As one patron told me who has had an abonnement for the past 24 years, it is an exquisite jewel of a traditional Opera House in miniature – great, tall, red velvet curtains against the tall windows towards the sea (which close for the performance), cherubs and gold and gold cherubs everywhere – it was all totally renovated, totally true to the original style in 2005 – comfortable seats except for the strapontins. Monaco attracts the most renowned singers for its annual Season, beginning in November; and the standard of performance is very high. Often known as the Casino building, one walks thru’ the lobby for the opera, gaming is on the upper floor.
However sometimes when opera sets are large, and perhaps a production attracting larger audiences, performances are staged in the rather ugly Forum, which is the multi-purpose concrete monstrosity between the sea and the avenue Princesse Grace, which holds goodness knows how many thousands more than the real Opera House. Architecturally, this building (inside and out) can only have been designed by an architect who had chronic indigestion. The only way to avoid that as a member of the audience, is to totally ignore the environment and concentrate on the stage.
This season both Cecilia Bartoli, and Bryn Terfel will be giving concerts. And tickets are around €90.
Do audiences dress up? Perhaps Marseille and certainly Monte Carlo they might do, but on the whole audiences tend to be not too dressy.
And whilst touring one does not need to miss the Live cinema performances in HD direct from the Met, Lincoln Centre, New York, as these incredible opera performances will be playing at cinemas in all these towns, one just has to check venues out at www.metopera.org, but tickets for these one off shows, tend to sell out fast.
One can scoop up lots of art culture along the way, it is well worth taking a side trip to St. Tropez, say by bus from Toulon, or via ferry across the golf of St. Tropez, from St. Raphael to visit it’s small Annonciade Museum right on the port, which has a small, superb and choice permanent collection, featuring many artists from around 1900 onwards, Fauvists, Nabilists who painted in this region- Bonnard, Maillol, Derain, Seurat and Signac, it is featuring a temporary exhibition to March devoted to Paul Signac, whose family still lives in the region.
Then there are the Museum of Aseatic Arts, and the Naval Museum in Toulon, the Chagall and Matisse Museums in Nice, the recently opened Bonnard Museum in Cagnes, and also a new Museum devoted to Cocteau in Menton.
The Editor wishes to thank Anite Rieu-Sicart, Editor of Var Village Voice, monthly magazine circulating to English speaking residents, mainly expatriates, living in the Var region of the South of France. Var Village Voice carries a regular monthly column devoted to Opera, written by Robert Turnbull.