The greatest pleasure of living in Paris, in my view, is not having every shop I could possibly wish for within reach of only a few metro stops, or taking a Sunday stroll in the Tuileries or along the Canal St Martin, or even spending hours at a café table chatting with friends, even though I love all those things: it is getting dressed up for an evening at the concert, the ballet, or the opera. There is nothing to beat the thrill of anticipation one feels as one joins the throng making its way through the doors of a concert hall. The buzz of chatter, the bright lights and elegant gowns, the glossy programmes, the creaking, uncomfortable plush seats, the sound of the orchestra tuning up in the pit – all these go to my head like champagne. If I had my way, I would have my own box at the opera, like the fashionable ladies of the nineteenth century, and be there every evening. One of the things I look forward to most when I travel back up to Paris at the end of the summer holidays is settling down at my desk with a pen and the programme of the coming season, and selecting which shows to attend…
Ten days ago, a friend and I took advantage of the European Heritage Days to visit the Opéra de Paris. Though its typical Second Empire style is not to everyone’s taste, the monumental marble staircase, the huge chandeliers, the frescoes and gilt and crimson damask fired us with enthusiasm and we determined to attend a performance there together as soon as possible. Ever vague, in my mind “as soon as possible” encompassed any time between now and next June, and despite my pangs of longing, I had no immediate expectations. I had never yet had occasion to witness my friend’s impressive efficiency, however: the very same day, she went online and called me to say she’d bought tickets for us.
So it came about that two nights ago, she and I went, not to the 1875 opera house that we’d visited, unfortunately (one can’t have everything!), but to the new 1989 opera house on the Place de la Bastille. The Opéra Bastille doesn’t have quite the same appeal as its older counterpart but, with its sleek black and white décor, it has a chic all its own, and the performances are very good – I saw a wonderful production of The Barber of Seville there last year. The other night was a rather unusual combination of poetry, music and ballet, in honour of the bicentenary of the birth of Théophile Gautier. I confess I am somewhat conservative in my artistic preferences and would not normally have been attracted to this kind of hybrid production, but I confess also that I am often a great fool, and am very glad indeed to have gone.
Théophile Gautier (1811-1872) was already known to me as a poet and a novelist. Along with other members of the Romantic generation, like Victor Hugo, Alfred de Musset, and my beloved George Sand, he rejected the formalism of seventeenth and eighteenth century Classicism in favour of greater stylistic freedom, evocations of nature, and the exploration of the human heart. In direct opposition to the realist and utilitarian vision of art then in vogue, he and his contemporaries proclaimed that the sole function of art was to aspire to beauty, and that as such, it was necessarily useless. He was one of the very first (in the famous Preface to his 1835 novel Mademoiselle de Maupin) to expound the creed of “art for art’s sake” which would be taken up in the second half of the nineteenth century by the Parnassian movement in France and the Aesthetic movement in England.
It is easy, amid the proliferation of theories and critical appreciations, to become mired in the abstract and to lose sight of the writer’s individuality, of his human presence in the world. One of the great triumphs of the evening’s performance was that it succeeded in bringing Gautier to life: the actor who read out excerpts from his correspondence and writings became Gautier, stomping around his drawing-room in his flowing dressing-gown and Oriental turban, tending the potted geraniums grouped on the round table in his study or selecting with greedy enjoyment another piece of Turkish Delight from the box balanced on his knee (the corpulence he attained in later life is hereby more easily understood). As he paid homage to the skill of an actress carried off by consumption or mocked, with cruel accuracy, the hypocritical piousness of his detractors, it was possible to see again the wild-haired skinny youth in the pale green trousers and scarlet waist-coat who had so enthusiastically supported Victor Hugo in 1830, by punching and clobbering the spectators who shouted insults and threw rotten vegetables at the stage, where Hernani was being played. For though he was an orator, he was not pompous – his irony was as hilarious as it was biting.
Like many of the Romantic writers, Gautier’s interests were not limited to poetry and drama. He was fascinated by the human voice – its diversity, its power and range, and its unique individuality – and his poems were set to music by French contemporaries like Ernest Chausson, Gabriel Fauré, Reynaldo Hahn, or Jules Massenet, but also by foreign composers like Schumann and Manuel de Falla. A soprano, accompanied by a piano and an alto, sang several of these melodies between readings, music and words conversing amorously with each other in the darkness. My personal favourites were Charles Gounod’s two versions of “La Chanson du Pêcheur”, the first one composed in 1841, the second one just after Gautier’s death, in 1872. The poem is a typical Romantic lover’s lament, expressing the poet’s grief and loneliness at the death of his lady. The earlier version was bittersweet and sad, and there was a certain haunting strain which gave me goose-bumps. The later one – which concluded the performance – was infinitely darker. It was so intensely tragic that it wrung one’s heart – one longed for the lights never to come back on, so that one could go on listening forever to the dying echo of the last note, in darkness and silence.
Though it came as no great surprise to me that Gautier’s lines should have inspired so many composers, I had never realized until then just how involved he was in the world of classical ballet. This was largely due to his life-long passion for the Italian ballerina Carlotta Grisi. (Though a warm friendship sprang up between them and they corresponded frequently, she did not return his feelings, and Gautier had to be content with the next best thing… her sister.) Inspired by her, he turned to writing librettos for the ballet, and it is to Gautier that we owe the creation of Giselle, considered the archetype of the Romantic ballet and now one of the most famous works in the repertoire of classical ballet. Adolphe Adam set the story to music and Carlotta’s husband choreographed it. It premiered in Paris in 1841, with Carlotta Grisi in the title role, and was an outstanding success. It seemed only natural, therefore, to render homage to this aspect of Gautier’s career as well, and to my infinite delight, the graveyard pas de deux from Giselle was danced by Clairemarie Osta and Mathieu Ganio, danseurs étoiles at the Opéra de Paris.
I have a deep love for the ballet which brings tears to my eyes and a lump in my throat, and causes me to clap passionately and tirelessly at the end of a performance, till my hands are red and sore. Just before the pas de deux, there had been a reading of the libretto of Giselle, which had brought out all the absurd sentimentality of the tale and made the audience shake with laughter. So that when Albrecht came on stage with his bouquet of lilies and his puffed Renaissance sleeves, there was still a faint echo of laughter in the air, and it required a real effort of will not to smile. But then the piano and alto struck up the beautiful melody of the pas de deux, and Giselle and Albrecht began to dance. In the blink of an eye – in a single heartbeat – I was spellbound! And for those who are more cynical than me, or who are not balletomanes, then let not the allure of a young and gorgeous man in tights be under-estimated! In short, it was a glorious evening.
© Florence Berlioz 2011