The genius of the opera-ballet

On July 10, 2011, the world of dance lost Roland Petit, a brilliant and original French choreographer. His best-known works were not the pretty-pretty ballets of fairies and swans in white fluffy tutus, but human dramas of passion, violence, elation, despair, and sex.

If you want to see all five elements in one short sequence, just watch the six-minute YouTube video of Le Jeune Homme et la Mort (Death and the Young Man), based on a story by Jean Cocteau using music by J.S. Bach. The most accessible version (though not necessarily the best) is the opening scene of the film White Nights with Mikhail Baryishnikov.* Take a look.

I think of Roland Petit whenever I catch sight of the Paris Opéra, because the first performance I ever attended in that building was one of his ballets. Appropriately enough, it was his take on Le fantôme de l’Opéra. This was well before Andrew Lloyd Webber got his hands on Gaston Leroux’s story and turned it into a cliché. Roland Petit’s version, with music by Marcel Landowski, was darker and spookier, with no trace of sentimentality, and the staging was extraordinary.

I remember so many details, even after all these years. And I still have the programme.

The story unfolds in twelve scenes, for which the set designer recreated parts of the building on stage – from the domed roof with its statues and the grand foyer with its staircases to the backstage areas (coulisses) and the underground lake (la cuve).

For the scene in which the chandelier crashes into the orchestra pit in the middle of a performance, the stage was recreated back to front. That is, the back of the real stage showed the reverse side of a huge curtain, with an audience dimly suggested beyond it and a chandelier visible near the ceiling. The dancers performed facing this curtain, with their backs to the real audience. As the chandelier started to fall, the curtain swung shut, so one heard only the crash as it landed and saw the pandemonium among the frightened dancers on stage as they tried to figure out what had just happened.

In another scene, the Fantôme vanishes into a mirror. The mirror on stage had been created with vertical strips of reflective mylar in a huge gilt frame. The Fantôme simply threw himself towards the frame and disappeared between the strips, which shimmered briefly, and then were still.

The Paris Opéra was the building in which Roland Petit trained as a young boy (he started ballet school there at the age of nine), and he must have known it at least as well as Gaston Leroux did. It is beautiful and creepy, full of grand public spaces and obscure backstage passages, gleaming gold statues and dusty disused corners, exciting and frightening and bewildering all at the same time. Norman’s photo below captures the view of the building from the roof of the Galeries Lafayette, rather than the customary tourist view from the front.

The programme I saved from the Fantôme performance devotes an entire page to the Opéra’s underground lake, which is the site of a crucial scene in the ballet (but without the corny gondola used in the Andrew Lloyd Webber version). This is a lake of ink, a lake of lead, a threatening space from which intruders do not return. There are rats. Big ones.

The programme explains that the purpose of the original lake was to stabilize the building. Just as one talks of fighting fire with fire, the builders of the Opéra fought water with water. The ground was sodden, and the water table too high. The only way to prevent water rushing into the foundations was to incorporate water into the foundations from the start, in the form of an artificial lake or reservoir (the French term la cuve means a tank).

In 1862, when construction began on the Opéra building, after the start of excavations, the ground had to be pumped out. It took a year. Eight pumps removed a quantity of water that (according to a contemporary writer quoted in the programme) would have filled an area the size of the courtyard of the Louvre to a depth one and a half times the height of Notre Dame. Then a foundation was built with concrete and cement, bricks and bitumen. Finally, the whole thing was flooded, so that every cranny was filled and more water could not enter. And on this watery foundation, the Opéra Garnier was built. Apparently Paris firemen now use the cuve for exercises in underwater rescue.

Other remarkable spaces under this massive building include stables for the horses that were once used in spectacular tableaux on stage, air raid shelters from the war, and vast elevators for raising and lowering pieces of scenery. The stage machinery is massive – in fact, the stage itself is massive. Another performance I attended there was an end-of-term concert by the Paris Opera “rats” (the ballet students), at the end of which, the layers of backdrops were raised one by one until the entire stage was visible all the way to the loading doors at the back. The space revealed was vast.

It remains an extraordinary place and an extraordinary ballet company. If you have not seen the 2009 Frederick Wiseman documentary, La Danse: Le ballet de l’Opéra de Paris, you have a treat in store for you. The photograph below captures the first view that most of us have of the building, as we emerge from the Metro.

Roland Petit spent many years working in that building with its ballet company, although he is also known as the founder of the Ballet National de Marseille and its director for 26 years. Over the course of his career, he created more than 150 ballets, of which perhaps Carmen (1949) is the best known. He choreographed it with Zizi Jeanmaire in mind – the vivacious ballerina who became his wife and muse. Click here to see the two of them in the love scene from Carmen that was considered shocking at the time.

His choreography for Notre Dame de Paris (The Hunchback of Notre Dame), with costumes by Yves St-Laurent, is another of his celebrated achievements. Petit even worked in Hollywood for a while. At various times, he collaborated with a range of performers from Margot Fonteyn to Serge Gainsbourg to Fred Astaire to Pink Floyd. Nothing was off-limits to him, it seems.

As for me, I will always associate him with the Paris Opéra and my first visit there.

Text by Philippa Campsie, original photographs by Norman Ball. Photograph of Roland Petit by F. Levieux.

*This version was modified from the 1946 original, and rather downplays the part of the woman. It is worth comparing with the version in which the woman’s part is played by Zizi Jeanmaire with Rudolf Nureyev as the young man.

About Parisian Fields

Parisian Fields is the blog of two Toronto writers who love Paris. When we can't be there, we can write about it. We're interested in everything from its history and architecture to its graffiti and street furniture. We welcome comments, suggestions, corrections, and musings from all readers.
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4 Responses to The genius of the opera-ballet

  1. Pingback: The Genius of the Opera-Ballet « French News Online Newsroom

  2. Bonjour. I have recently discovered your blog and have started following it. Your posts are well researched and teach me new things about this city I know so well. Thank you for that. This story is a good example. I have enjoyed learning more about the Opéra Garnier and Roland Petit. Veronique (French Girl in Seattle)

  3. Pingback: One Thing Leads to Another « French News Online Newsroom

  4. Summer Hologram says:


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