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These musical Parisian palaces continue to hit all the right notes


Sumptuous: Palais Garnier in Paris

Sumptuous: Palais Garnier in Paris

Sumptuous: Palais Garnier in Paris

Back at the Parc des Princes in Paris for a football match the other week, I was returned to an earlier time, when Ireland rugby games were part of my beat, and the visits every other year always ended in failure.

Then, I worked alongside a charming gent by the name of Peter West, who filled many roles for the BBC, among them host of the original Come Dancing.

Peter commentated on the oval ball game and liked to make the most of his trips away, so when France at home in the then Five Nations popped up on his schedule, he'd factor in a trip to the Opéra.

These days, Paris – as if to underline its status as a centre of operatic excellence – has not one but two venues. The futuristic theatre on the Place de la Bastille, with room for 2,700 opera lovers, was opened in July 1989 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution, though when Peter was adding culture to his working weekend, there was just the one, but what a facility it is.

The sumptuous Palais Garnier – so splendidly opulent it was given its name in honour of the architect who designed it – is probably the most famous opera house in the world. A forgotten novelist called Gaston Leroux came up with the yarn that would ultimately become hugely successful in its adaptations for stage and screen. The Phantom of the Opera was one fantastic tale, but there was real-life drama behind the building of this architectural gem.

It was Napoléon III who decided Paris needed a new venue after an attempt on his life as he was arriving for a performance at the old opera house. He and his party survived a bomb attack by Italian anarchists, but there were fatalities and several hundred injuries among the crowd of onlookers in the narrow street.

An international competition to design a new building attracted 171 architects, and it was something of a surprise when the plans of the relatively unknown Charles Garnier got the nod. But he had caught the mood.

Appropriately enough, his musical palace was built just off the Boulevard Haussmann – the avenue named after the civil servant who masterminded the Napoleonic reconstruction of Paris. The emperor didn't live to see it, but it was everything he would have wished it to be, imposing and ornate, a physical symbol of imperial power, which would be a mecca for the great and the good.

It opened in 1875, a huge house on a three-acre site. The auditorium has a capacity of over 2,000, making it the perfect stage for both opera and ballet. Garnier conceived it as a place to see and be seen. The foyer, the grand staircase, the various lobbies, they were central to the experience, where the cream of Parisian society could strut its stuff, maybe enjoying that more than the musical entertainment inside.

Things may have changed in 21st-Century Paris, but the Palais Garnier's tradition of excellence is maintained with a full programme of opera and ballet complementing the schedule of the new house in the east end of the city.

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