A Night at the Paris Opera

I’m still not sure how we got two tickets for the sold-out Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte performance just three days before the performance. Perseverance? So, with our 39 Euro tickets in our hot little hands, we hopped on the No 95 cross-town bus (Montparnasse to Opera). First of all, a word about the Garnier Opera House at night. There is (in my very humble opinion) no other building in all of Paris that can compare in grandeur with the Opera House, particularly when it is fully illuminated, and even more so since it has been completely cleaned. I know that there are some architecture buffs who will disagree – the ornate Napoleon III era style may be just too much over the top for some, but Garnier’s idea to create an elaborate staircase leading from the main floor to the loges, a staircases that would put the theatergoers on stage as much as the singers and dancers, was a brilliant concept – and very fitting for the time period. It was perhaps an era of bloated self-importance, dandies and show-offs. Garnier gave the kind of gilded backdrop that must have made a zillion superficial conversations seem suddenly witty.
Flash forward to October 2006. Times have certainly changed and nowadays the dandies and the show-offs have given way to a new brand of arrogance – disdain for anything that even has a whiff of the ‘bourgeoisie.’ And clearly, the obvious sign of being hopelessly middle class is being properly dressed. (We didn’t try to disguise ourselves for Halloween – we dressed for the occasion – as an homage to M. Garnier even if the set decorator for this production decided that the audience didn’t really deserve a proper curtain – but I’ll get to set design later).
To get to our seats in the nosebleed section of the amphitheater, we would have to take the elevator to the fourth floor. The first thing I noticed about the fourth floor is that the flooring is not nearly as fancy as the lower floors – there’s more of an institutional look at this level, that is, until you peer from your ‘Phantom’s vantage’ point overlooking the entire crowd of arrivals who are wending their way toward their loges. We can also peer directly across the ceiling at the mammoth nudes who flank the arches, including male and female winged muses. The women all have legs like line backers – and I made sure to point out to Chris – they had Greco-Roman toes as opposed to Egyptian toes. (The Greco-Roman big toe is a little shorter than the second toe). This floor would have been fine – if we were both still in primary school – but alas, we’re full grown adults – not overweight, just average weight. The seats in this 39 Euros range were obviously designed for 19th-century body types (excluding any of the models for those sculptures that decorate the ceiling).
We are used to small seats. Most of the theaters in the Gaite/Montparnasse neighborhood are small. The seating is therefore tight – but nothing compares with the amphitheater at the Garnier Opera House. To begin with, if your have fear of heights; this is not the place to be. The height is dizzying. You won’t want to stand up for long and you won’t dare nod in your seat. I doubt that the people in front of you would break your fall even though we are at the very back row.
Now begins the juggling act (not on stage, but at our seats). Where do you put things? We’ve checked out coats and hat. But where do I put the handbag? It’s not a big handbag, but suddenly it seems gargantuan. I fumble for the opera glasses. Meanwhile three couples pass us to take their seats. “Very comfortable!” I say to the couple next to us. They chuckle. “I hate coming to Garnier. Bastille is much better,” the woman of the couple says. “When did you buy your tickets? We have a subscription and we ordered these tickets six months in advance,” she added.
My first reaction was – emotional. “Are there no stoics left in the world?” I thought to myself. If you want to be comfortable, stay home, get the opera on video and listen to the opera in bed. This is THE Opera, after all, and don’t forget, this is a sold-out performance – we’re lucky to get any tickets.” That’s what I say to myself as the ‘curtain’ goes up. That’s right. There is no curtain. It’s a wall. The set is what appears to be the outside corner of a warehouse with the words “Smoking is Forbidden” written in Italian. There are some ladders in the corner, some low-income housing balconies on the sides. There’s a metal pushcart – like the ones you might see at Home Depot, or the kind Dad used to use to push film reels around the archive. I’m not sure what this opera set has to do with 18th century Vienna. There’s a guy sitting in the corner reading. He’s been there on stage since we arrived. Earlier in the evening, the ‘wall’ had been lowered – I said to Chris ‘you wouldn’t want THAT WALL falling down on you, for sure. He was more concerned about the seating situation. “I’m not quite sure how I can sit down and not jab my knees into the back of the person sitting in front of me.
“Staggering. The seats are staggered.”
“Right. Well, I just DARE anyone to fart.”
The wall went up again but none of the singers were on stage anyhow so there didn’t seem to be any point. The singers were in the audience. I think it’s at this point I should tell you that this version of Cosi Fan Tutte is directed by French actor and filmmaker Patrice Chereau who has been lauded by a reviewer on the www.parisinfo.com site for “unveiling the dramatic aspect” of the opera as well as his “sober, elegant stage direction”.
I am a total ignoramus when it comes to opera so don’t expect me to tell you about the quality of the performance given by Erin Wall, Elina Garanca, Marie McLaughlin, Shawn Mathey, Stephane Degout and Ruggero Raimondo – all I can say is that they all held up admirably well for the entire three hours. Much better than we did. Considering that they had to do an incredible about of running around the set, picking up furniture (because I guess with the 35 hour work week, they couldn’t afford anyone else to pick up the set, fainting, fencing, rolling around on the floor, singing and mimicking Donna Summer orgasms at the same time (I guess that was the ‘dramatic aspect’ the reviewer was talking about), the entire cast certainly deserved the spirited applause. Christopher said it was a shame that they couldn’t afford to dress that the female leads in anything more than a red dress and blue dress. “I got awfully tired of the red and blue dresses.” But I guess that was what the reviewer was referring to as the ‘sober’ part of the ‘sober and elegant’ part of the stage direction.
Meanwhile back at the intermission. If you thought they knew how to run fast on stage, you should check out the speedy barman on the fourth floor. This guy is good. He has to be. He’s the only one there, serving a god zillion hot, thirsty opera fans (who’ve been sweltering for an hour and a half while getting their backs massaged by knobby knees).
No opera reviewer should EVER do his review from the fourth level. In fact, even Mozart’s opera might get some serious scrutiny. I can imagine it now. Did you HAVE to make those arias so LONG? And have you considered cutting this one back to two hours rather than three? These were some of the thoughts running through our head as we fidgeted on our half seats. Then suddenly, a most lovely plaintive solo hits a note that for a moment transports us far beyond our banal discomforts. The theme of Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte is wive’s fidelity (based supposedly on a true story of two husbands in Vienna who decided to test their wives’ faithfulness. This sounds like an episode from Desperate Housewives.
I’m still no quite sure when all is said and done that this is one of Mozart’s more brilliant operas, but it’ s supposed to be fun.
Are we having fun yet?
Definitely, we will not forget our night at the opera. Is there a moral here for husbands, wives, and significant others? Yes!
Get the best seats at the opera you can possibly afford – or don’t go.