In Paris, Restoring the Opera Comique

General / People / Places / January 18, 2013

After more than a year of concentrated and collaborative effort, the grand foyer of the Opera Comique in Paris has been restored to its original 19th-century radiance, as envisioned by architect Louis Bernier.  The project, conducted under the direction of the National Heritage Sites of France, also benefited from the patronage of the World Monuments Fund.  A+A recently inteviewed Yann Jurez Lancien, project manager for the World Monuments Fund Europe :

Why is this such an important building and foyer?

The Opera Comique was founded in 1714 under Louis XIV. It is among the oldest dramatic and musical institutions in France. Its history was alternately turbulent and prestigious until it was listed on the register of the national theaters in 2005. Since then, a new period has begun for the theater: it aims to introduce its remarkable repertoire, ensure the production and diffusion of dramatic works to the general public.

Opéra Comique is a genre represented by the Opéra Comique.  It is not necessarily comic in nature, but sung lines are interspersed with spoken drama. Opéra Comique contrasts with opera, which is sung throughout. After 1783, the Opéra Comique scheduled its seasons in a theater that took on the name of famous librettist Charles-Simon Favart. The Salle Favart burned down twice and was rebuilt on the same plot. In 1898 the third Salle Favart was assigned to the Opéra Comique.

The Opéra Comique theater is a unique artistic heritage as a rare combination of architecture and sculpted and painted ensemble characteristic of late 19th-century France.

Who are some of the architects and artisans who worked on the foyer when it was built?

The current Opéra Comique theater building is characteristic of the second half of the 19th century in its use of a modern metal structure and bricks as well as a classic ashlar envelope: a confrontation between engineering technology and French-style architecture that foreshadows the aesthetics of the 1900 Exposition Universelle.

It is the last theater made of steel prior to the advent of reinforced concrete at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées built in 1913 by Auguste Perret, and as such is the technical culmination of steel-framed monumental construction.

The architect Louis Bernier assigned the decoration to renowned artists and contractors: Maignan, Gervex,Toudouze and Collin for the paintings, Gasq and Coutan for the sculptures, Kulikowski, Hamel and Bertheau for stucco works, Christofle for the chandeliers, the leaf-patterned elements on marble and the gilding of bronze sculptures.

The decoration processes are also characteristic: marouflaged canvases, use of carton-pierre (a sort of papier-mâché), installation of mosaics, serial reproduction of metal elements, mastery of industrial arts as applied to the monumental décor.

The decoration of the Opéra Comique theater is a unique exponent of the design of reception and social representation spaces in a 19th century performance venue. As rooms devoted to relaxation during intervals, the foyer and its adjacent lounges feature subjects that catch the patrons’ attention and recall the origins of opéra comique: the paintings of the foyer and rotundas depict allegorical figures and historical themes related to the history of the genre since its early performances. It is a place for “educational” entertainment.

The history of opéra comique is also alluded to in the busts and medallions of the grand foyer.  This grand foyer is a peak of polychromy with its green, yellow and rosy gilding combined with the warm tones of the paneling and parquet woodwork, the veined marble of door frames and pedestals, the gilded bronze of the chandelier and of the plant-patterned elements set on marble as well as upper paintings.

Why restore it?

This initiative was taken by WMF Europe and Bertrand du Vignaud led an international fundraising campaign in order to raise the funds.  Tests conducted on all the decoration confirmed that an overall cleaning would bring back the foyer to its original luster and that it was urgent to carry out a restoration campaign before damage from time becomes irreversible. The accumulation of dust and soiling was the main sources of deterioration to the elements of decoration in the foyer. Its use as a reception room contributed to wearing out supports (smoke) yet without damaging their structures.

Besides, the various repair works carried out during previous restoration campaigns at a time when restoration techniques were not as advanced as today left visible marks and are deteriorated.

Who headed the restoration team, how many served on it, and what was their assignment?

Jérôme Deschamps (Opera Comique Director) and Pierre Antoine Gatier (Chief Architect of Historic Monuments – In charge of the patrimonial value of the Site) managed a team of restorers: Chandeliers: Mathieu Lustrerie; Scaffoldings: Layher SAS; Restoration: ARCOA; Bronze restoration:Tollis; Sculptures made of marble : Marbrerie: Tollis; Woodworks: Les Métiers du Bois.

What were the inherent challenges?

The restoration carried out by the WMF Europe will aim at a thorough cleaning of all supports and removal of marks resulting from previous interventions: varnish of paintings, wax of busts, pedestals and dadoes. However, more damaged elements will require more delicate repair works (mending of detachments and tears, retouches on Maignan’s paintings, removal of grime on the gilded friezes of dadoes, mending of gaps on carton-pierre patterns of the cornice) as well as occasional mending of gilding (acanthus leaves below the “Foire Saint-Laurent,” flat edges).

As for the foyer paintings, the restoration by the WMF will aim at a thorough cleaning of the various supports and removal of marks resulting from previous
interventions. The gilding on metal and wood requires dirt removal by application of ammonium citrate solution. The parquet will have to be replaced.  As for sculptures, the six white marble busts exhibit major soiling, some breakage and spalling at the edges of consoles. The plinths are deteriorated and yellowed. Cracks around marble veins need treatment.

The two bronze chandeliers of the foyer by Christofle are in a good state of conservation yet they exhibit significant soiling that could prove harmful to the preservation of the bronze. The electrical system does not comply with safety standards and will require replacement. The chandeliers will have to be removed for cleaning in a workshop.

In order to secure the sustainability and enhancement of this remarkable ensemble, the advocated intervention consists in a restoration aimed at conservation of the existing state.

What was the cost of restoration, and how was it funded?

The total cost of the restoration is about one million Euros. The WMF provided 70% of this amount, thanks to The Danny Kaye and Sylvia Fine Kaye Foundation, the largest donor, The Eveillard Family Charitable Trust, Fondation de l’Orangerie and its donors, Sidney J. Weinberg, Jr. Foundation/Sydney Houghton Weinberg, Anonymous donor. The French state, owner of thebuilding, funded the last 30 percent.

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Michael Welton




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