The opening of the opera house at Versailles brought to a close a process of planning, projects and designs that had lasted for nearly a century. While the Royal Opera was finally built towards the end of the reign of Louis XV, it had been envisaged since as early as 1682, the year when his predecessor Louis XIV took up residence at Versailles. The King had commissioned Jules Hardouin-Mansart and Vigarani to draw up plans for a ballet theatre. Mansart shrewdly decided on a position at the far end of the new wing that was to be built over the coming years: the nearby reservoirs for the gardens’ fountains could be used to fight any fire that might break out, while the sloping ground on that part of the site would allow provision of the necessary technical spaces below the stage without major excavation work. So cleverly-chosen, indeed, was the planned location that none of Mansart’s successors ever questioned it.
Major building work was already under way in 1685, but was soon interrupted because of the wars and financial difficulties which beset the later part of the king’s reign. Louis XV in his turn was long put off by the huge expense involved in the project. As a result, for almost a century the French court was forced to put up with a makeshift theatre installed below the Passage des Princes. When a grand opera was required, with a large cast and complicated stage machinery, a temporary theatre would be built in the stables of the Grande Ecurie, with the entire structure being demolished once the performances were over. This temporary solution was adopted, for instance, during the celebrations of the Dauphin’s wedding in February 1745, but its inconvenience was so starkly obvious that Louis XV finally resolved to build a permanent theatre, entrusting its design to his first architect, AngeJacques Gabriel.
The process of actually building the new theatre, however, was to take over twenty years. During this lengthy period of construction Gabriel, who had studied the leading theatres of Italy, in particular Vicenza, Bologna, Parma, Modena and Turin, presented a series of different designs to his royal patron, none of which was accepted. Only in 1768, faced with the forthcoming successive marriages of his grandchildren, did the king finally give the order for work to commence. Building progressed steadily and the new opera house was completed in twenty-three months, ready for its inauguration on the 16th of May 1770, the day of the Dauphin’s marriage to the Archduchess Marie-Antoinette, with a performance of Persée by Quinault and Lully.
Operning Concert - Royal Opera, 2009 – Bryn Terfel - Mozart – Marc Minkowski, Les Musiciens du Louvre.