Theatre des Champs Elysees and Olivier Py’s ‘Paris: Dialogues Des Carmélites’

Celebrating its centenary anniversary in 2013, Theatre des Champs Elysees is one of Paris' most famous theatres. Robert Hugill investigates the history of this iconic venue and also reviews Olivier Py’s Paris: Dialogues Des Carmélites, a new staging of Francis Poulenc's opera that performed in December 2013.

The History of the Theatre des Champs Elysees

Rather remarkably, the Theatre des Champs Elysees is one of the few major Art Deco buildings in Paris. Built in 1913, the building is notable for its use of reinforced concrete, its rather plain facade and that fact that the theatre's first season included the premiere of The Rite of Spring with its ensuing riot. The theatre’s construction was orchestrated by Gabriel Astruc, the impresario responsible for bringing figures as diverse as Mata Hari, Enrico Caruso, Nellie Melba, Richard Strauss and Diaghlev's Ballets Russes to Paris.

The Theatre des Champs Elysees stands on the Avenue Montaigne near the Pont de l'Alma, and at the time of building it was miles West of any other theatre in Paris. The structure’s close proximity to the Seine necessitated the use of reinforce concrete. The theatre's façade is relieved by a bas relief by Antoine Bourdelle, inspired by the dancing of Isadora Duncan, while the inside of the theatre’s dome was designed by Maurice Denis with paintings by Eduouard Vuillard and Jacqueline Marval.

Astruc opened the theatre's first season with a concert in which the composers Claude Debussy, Paul Dukas, Gabriel Faure, Vincent D'Indy and Camille Saint-Saens all conducted their own work. Subsequent events included performances from Anna Pavlova, Felix Weingartner conducting Beethoven, appearances by pianist Alfred Cortot and soprano Lili Lehman. However the event most associated with that opening season was the appearance of Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, for their fifth season in Paris. Their opening night included Stravinsky and Fokine's Firebird, Fokine's ballet to Rimsky Korsakov's Scheherezade and the premiere of Nijinsky's ballet Jeux with a newly commissioned score from Debussy. Though audiences were puzzled by Jeux the evening gave them what they wanted: glorious decors by Bakst and Nijinsky dancing the role of the golden slave in Scheherezade. These spectacular performances were overshadowed by the premiere of The Rite of Spring on 29 May 1913, with choreography by Nijinsky to another newly commissioned score by Stravinsky. The decors were grim, depicting pre-historic Russia, and though Nijinsky choreographed the work he didn't dance. The resulting riot has gone down in history as one of the most famous in history. Though the season continued with Faure's Penelope, by summer 1913 Astruc had run out of money and was ejected from the theatre in November of that year.

Today the theatre runs an interesting programme of opera and concerts, with many of the operas being performed in concert form. The theatre has also become known for its performances of baroque opera, as well as presenting some of the most iconic modern productions; in February 2013 the theatre presented a rare staging of the original French version of Donizetti's opera La Favorite with Alice Coote in the title role.

The theatre celebrated the centenary of The Rite of Spring with Nijinsky's original choreography, reconstructed by Millicent Hodson and Kenneth Archer, and danced by the Ballet Theatre du Mariinsky with Valery Gergiev conducting the Orchestra of the Mariinsky. They performed the work with a new piece by Sasha Waltz. The theatre also presented the Tanzteater Wuppertal / Pina Bausch in Pina Bausch's version of The Rite of Spring along with a documentary made in 1987.

In addition to this, the theatre's 2013/14 season opened with a staging of Spontini's opera La Vestale, and delights to come in 2014 include Rossini's Otello and Tancredi. December 2013 saw a new staging of Francis Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmelites directed by Olivier Py.

Review of ‘Paris: Dialogues Des Carmélites’

Performed in December 2013, the Theatre des Champs Elysees presented a new staging of Francis Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmelites, directed by Olivier Py and conducted by Jeremie Rhorer with the Philharmonia Orchestra in the pit. The opera is based on a play by Georges Bernanos, in turn based on real events in which a group of Carmelite nuns were executed during the French Revolution. It was premiered at La Scala in Milan (in Italian) in 1957 with the French premiere taking place later that year at the Paris Opera with a cast including Denise Duval and Regine Crespin.

Much of the opera takes place in recitative, and an important factor in the performance at the Theatre des Champs Elysees was the presence of so many French speaking singers in the cast, with Patricia Petibon as Blance, Sabine Devieilhe as Soeur Constance, Sophie Koch as Mere Marie, and Veronique Gens as Mere Lidoine, plus Rosalind Plowright as Madame de Croissy.

Py's production, designed by Pierre-Andrew Weitz took place in an austere wooden box with scene changes effected by sliding screens, such as one transition where the rear of the stage opened to reveal a backdrop of trees. The setting had been brought forward to the 1930s, but costumes were stylishly generic with no particular historic references; the revolution could be any of the 20th century political upheavals.

Within this setting Py and Weitz created an intense and concentrated drama. There was little local colour and the revolutionaries were largely confined off stage, and therefore the piece felt like it was exploring the nun’s interior life. Poulenc's opera has a very real religious theme running through it, including the rather complex concept of the transference of grace. Py made this the centre of the drama, without ever making the audience feel preached to. It helped that, at key moments, he introduced some notable coups de theatre. Having the nuns enacting religious pictures during the orchestral interludes veered dangerous close to kitsch, however at the end of act one in Madame de Croissy's death scene, Py and Weitz had Rosalind Plowright in bed suspended vertically, so that the audience felt like they were looking down on her. The result was brilliant, and enabled Plowright to deliver a stunning performance of Madame de Croissy's death scene.

Many of the performances were selfless, with the individual performers creating a sense of community for the nuns. It helped that conductor Jeremie Rhorer had the Philharmonia Orchestra in the pit so that the audience had a highly sophisticated and seductive realisation of Poulenc's thrilling score with its extensive orchestral interlude. Rhorer is best known for his work with his own period instrument group La Cercle de l'Harmonie, but here he showed himself entirely in sympathy with Poulenc's sound world.

The finale of the opera has the nuns going to the scaffold, singing the Salve Regina and leaving one by one as the audience hears the guillotine in the orchestra. For this, and the preceding orchestral interlude, Poulenc wrote some of his most thrilling and most moving music. Py and Weitz realised the scene in a magical fashion, having the nuns leave one by one going to the rear of the stage with the backdrop now a night sky with shining stars. The final image of the opera was of Patricia Petibon's Blanche walking slowing away from the audience towards the infinite night sky.

By Robert Hugill