Fire at the Opera House

Marina McLerran

Editor, McLerran Journal

Assistant Band Director

This article was inspired by a trip to the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston with my family where I was struck by this painting, “The Fire at the Opera House of the Palais-Royal” by Hubert Robert. 


What was the importance of this opera house?

According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the Opera House of the Palais-Royal was the first theater in France with moveable scenery wings and a permanent proscenium arch. Designed by architect Jacques Lemercier and funded by patron of the arts, Cardinal Richelieu, the theater opened with a performance of Jean Desmaret’s Mirame in 1641 (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2019). After the Cardinal’s death in the early 1600’s, the opera house passed into royal possession and was used primarily for the French court’s entertainment (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2019). For the remainder of the century, the space was most often occupied by the comedy genius, Molière (1622-1673), and by the father of French opera, Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687). This would have been the location where Lully apparently established his famous Royal Academy of Music and premiered the opera Cadmus and Hermione (1673), widely considered the first completely French opera in history (Opera National de Paris, 2018). This opera house is also the location where the French public were first introduced to ballet; until Lully’s decision to implement dance interludes into his operas, the dance style had been enjoyed only by royals and the noble class at court events (Opera National de Paris, 2018).

FUN FACT: The Opera House of the Palais-Royal was likely the location where Lully sustained the injury to his foot which eventually led to his death in 1687. See How Batons Are Made for more details.

Two Devastating Fires

More than a century after its grand opening, the Opera House of the Palais-Royal was devastated by fire in 1763. Undeterred by the damages, French patrons of the arts simply rebuilt the structure only to watch it burn again in 1781. The second fire, depicted in Hubert Robert’s painting, is described by art-historian and editor of History and Other Thoughts, Gio:

“The fire was very considerable, and there were various victims; but the number would have been much greater but for the presence of mind of the ballet-master, who was on the stage when the fire broke out. It was on the night of June 8. The air was heavy and stormy, and rain had begun to fall. The ballet "Orpheus" was being given, when the ballet-master gave an abrupt order for the dancing to cease [...] Order was then given to cut the ropes which held the piece of burning scenery; the order was clumsily carried out, the ropes being cut on one side only. Hanging in this way the scenery burnt more quickly, and soon the whole theatre was in flames. The smoke had already driven the audience out, their cries awakening the whole district. People crowded to their windows, and the street filled quickly. […] A fire in the Paris of olden days, with its narrow streets, was a terrible business. […] Cries of alarm arose as a column of flame more than 200 feet high shot into the air, "tinged with many colours, an effect due to the burning oil-painted scenery and gilded boxes." […] Happily there was no wind, and, as rain continued to fall, the fire was confined to the theatre, which was completely burnt.”   

“Orfeo” Cristoph Willibald Gluck (1774)

In ancient Greek mythology, Orpheus was a musician and prophet who received inhuman musical abilities directly from Apollo, the God of Music (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2018). The most famous story of Orpheus is the legend of his failed attempt to rescue his deceased love, Eurydice, from the underworld. After charming the god Hades with his music, Orpheus was allowed to escort Eurydice back to the living world, on the one condition that he did not look back until the border had been crossed. The two lovers made it all the way to the entrance of the surface when Orpheus, forgetting himself, looked back towards Eurydice and immediately lost her forever back to the underworld.

The French Orfeo which would have been performed the night of the fire was an ambitious rewrite of Gluck’s earlier Orfeo ed Euridice (1762), first performed in Vienna. In an attempt to appeal more to French opera-goers and in order to stay relevant in the time of great composers like Claude Montiverdi and Jean-Philippe Rameau, Gluck saturated the revised version of his opera with additional arias, recitatives, and dance interludes (Gardiner, 2015). Although neither version of this work earned him lasting recognition in his lifetime, Gluck did manage to make an impact on the structure of opera seria, a style of composition which he considered to be outdated and generally myopic (Gardiner, 2015). Perhaps the most unique element of this composition, however, is the range for which the male lead (Orpheus) is written. In the time period when female singers were not openly accepted, soprano and alto parts had to be performed by men (see castrato). This would not have been unexpected by the 17th century French audience, but Gluck’s decision to also write the role of Orpheus for a castrato certainly would have been (Gardiner, 2015). It was a decision that stood in direct contrast with the tenor-singing Orpheus of Monteverdi’s much earlier and highly successful L’Orfeo of 1607 and certainly would have generated mixed reviews from the educated opera-goer of the time period.

In the end, perhaps it was fitting that the final performance of the original Opera House of the Palais-Royal should be about the permanent end of something beautiful; just as the Parisians hopefully rebuilt their beloved theater after the fire in 1763, Orpheus too falsely believed that he could resurrect one who was lost.

With flowers bestrew this melancholy shrine, friendship is yours but sighs and fears are mine, leave

me- my soul shall ne’er its peace resume, it sleeps, forever sleeps in this cold tomb.

  -Orfeo et Eurydice, translated text from the Library of Congress




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International Music Score Library Project: Petrucci Music Library. Wilmington, DE. USA.

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