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French Approve of This Bastille

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After years of strife over the new Opera Bastille and a fair amount of ridicule over its exterior appearance--its eight-story bulk in glass, steel and off-white stone likened by some to a huge, immobile ship and by others to a rhinoceros in a bathtub--it turns out that the Paris press, despite some quibbles, rather likes the place.

Daily newspapers of all political stripes, from L’Humanite, the Communist Party daily, to the conservative Le Figaro, which opposed the project from the beginning, joined in finding the new theater and its 2,700-seat main auditorium a success. They also praised the brief inaugural program Thursday evening of excerpts from French operas presented in a staging by Robert Wilson, the avant-garde American stage director.

The 80-minute inaugural program--entitled “The Night Before the Day,” meaning the eve of Bastille Day--was kept short so President Francois Mitterrand, President George Bush and 30 or so other heads of state and government could get to a state dinner more or less on time. On paper it looked like just a succession of arias, but it was turned into a fast-moving theatrical event by Wilson.

Aside from the political leaders, including several Africans and Asians in colorful robes, the audience was a mix of the socially prominent, people from the theater and music worlds, journalists and critics, and celebrities like the tennis star Yannick Noah and the actress Catherine Deneuve. Befitting the new house’s “modern and popular” mission, dress was informal and the occasional black-tie wearer looked out of place.

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The high-powered array of singers included June Anderson, Shirley Verrett, Barbara Hendricks, Teresa Berganza, Placido Domingo, Alfredo Kraus, along with leading French singers like Martine Dupuy, Alain Fondary and Jean-Philippe Lafont. The women were dressed in robes designed by some of France’s top haute-couture designers--Christian Lacroix did a flamboyant red number for Berganza’s “Carmen” excerpt; Yves Saint Laurent designed for Verrett, who sang an aria from Gluck’s “Alceste,” Givenchy for Hendricks, and so forth.

Wilson even got some of the singers to do things besides stand and sing. For instance, Barbara Hendricks, after singing Juliet’s aria from Gounod’s “Romeo and Juliet,” stretched out on the floor of the stage to listen to Alfredo Kraus serenade her as Romeo.

Jacques Lonchampt, the music critic of Le Monde, was struck by “a feeling of proximity” in the auditorium, in which the distance from the stage to the second balcony seemed short and gave the theater a “human scale.”

France-Soir rhapsodized about “the beauty of its foyers, the splendor of its large auditorium with its magnificent ceiling like a wave of light.” Like several other observers, the France-Soir writer was impressed by the main stage curtain, the work of the American artist Cy Twombly. This decidedly untraditional theater curtain has circular tracings in chalk-like white on a field of midnight blue, “like a wave of amplified sound,” according to the author of a program note.

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L’Humanite found the building and its inaugural ceremonies a “triumphant success,” and wrote of its “Himalayan staircases and panoramic promenades.” The writer had plenty of time to study them, for the bulk of the audience had to be inside the theater two hours before curtain time to clear the decks for the arrival of the heads of state, and stayed for up to two hours after the show, drinking champagne and enjoying superb panoramas of Paris through the glass walls.

Even Frederic Edelmann, the architecture critic of Le Monde and a severe judge of the plan of the Canadian architect, Carlos Ott, during the building’s construction, seemed considerably mollified, if hardly totally satisfied. He found its ambience “half clinic, half ocean liner,” and summed up that “the Opera is a marvelous machine, rather stupidly implanted but welcoming, and with sculptural qualities which are far from being inventive but closer to being solid and efficient.”

The critics’ judgment of the theater’s acoustics was generally favorable, with some qualifications. Lonchampt, in Le Monde, liked the “rich, vivid sonority, neither cottony nor electronic, which proves the excellence of the calculations and the materials,” although conceding that some adjustments would be necessary. Jacques Doucelin, in Le Figaro, also thought the acoustics would require some tinkering. He found that while “perfect for the orchestra, it still poses some problems for the voices.”

On Friday, Bastille Day, it was the public’s turn. Traditionally performances in state theaters on Bastille Day are free, and the Opera Bastille was filled for a performance of Berlioz’s “Te Deum,” with Georges Pretre conducting the Paris Opera orchestra and chorus. The daily Liberation estimated that three times as many were outside trying to get in. Unlike 200 years ago, this assault on the Bastille was repulsed without serious incident.

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