It had been my long time wish to visit the Opéra de Vichy. And this summer, my wish finally came true. To prepare myself for the trip, I searched the www for information about the Opéra building, but information was not to be found (not in English that is). All the information you’ll read here is based on a book ‘Opéra de Vichy, mémoire d’un théâtre’ by Josette Alviset (past-president of the Vichy Opera Museum) kindly translated for me by Philippe Gendre, who works at the Vichy Tourist Information Office. Merci Philippe!
The first theatre of the Casino de Vichy
Vichy is one of France’s Villes d’Eaux (Spa Towns); I already mentioned them in my earlier posts about La Bourboule and Le Mont Dore. When Napoleon III in 1861 traveled to Vichy, he got bored and ordered a Casino to be build, just like the ones in the German Spa towns he knew so well. Different plans were submitted and in 1863 Napoleon approved the design submitted by Charles Badger1, an architect of British origin who had already built several other projects in Vichy.
Construction started immediately and finished within two years. The inauguration took place in the presence of Napoleon III on the 2nd of July 1865 with a performance of Offenbach’s Lischen et Fritzchen in the Casino’s theatre. The theatre offered 820 large armchairs, the stage curtains were red, and the walls were decorated with outdoor scenes by Jules Petit. Above the stage curtain an eagle and angels surrounded the inscription ‘built in 1865 by Emperor Napoleon’.
I booked the ‘Opéra de Vichy Behind the Scenes Tour’ at the Tourist Information Office and along with a large group of mainly French tourists I got to see the interior of what was for me the most spectacular Art Nouveau theatre I have ever seen. The tour also included a look inside the original Casino building. Excellent chandelier!
The new theatre of the Grand Casino de Vichy
The troupe and orchestra grew and with the wide repertoire they were offering the theatre received, both on stage and in the audience, many celebrities. The number of visitors to the Vichy Spas and Casino grew and grew, and by the end of the 19th century the casino hosted some 2.000 guests every day! But those guests complained: the Casino had become too small!
Charles Badger proposed extensions to the building which were rejected. In 1892 Charles le Coeur2, another architect, was consulted yet nothing was done with his proposals. And discontent grew. Petitions were organised and the city council even considered building a new Casino themselves. Finally, in 1897 the problem was solved when the Compagnie Fermière de Vichy committed to invest in a major extension to the Casino.
In 1898 Charles le Coeur was commissioned to build a series of new projects in Vichy: a new bath establishment, galleries, a drink hall, light sources and… the new Casino! The old building remained part of the new construction as can be seen in above picture. The Badger auditorium became game room, the billiard room a restaurant and the former game room a large hall (the one with the beautiful chandelier in my pictures above). The veranda was replaced by a glass canopy and a new terrace overlooked the park. Le Coeur was assisted by Lucien Woog3 and Jules Simon, both architects of the Compagnie de Vichy, and a lot of other talented artists.
The façade of the new theatre is adorned with ornamental sculptures – masks, medallions and musical instruments – by Pierre Seguin5. And the three large doors were decorated with forged flowers by Emile Robert4 who was also responsible for the balustrades and handrails of the building.
The new theatre was inaugurated on the 2nd of June 1901 welcoming just over 1.400 spectators. The sloped orchestra has 18 rows of seats and 12 private boxes. The first balcony has 3 rows and 28 private boxes and the second balcony hosts another 6 rows of seats. And everything is upholstered with a luscious golden velvet. All sculpted elements are done by Pierre Seguin, like the two spectacular byzantine heads over the VIP boxes overlooking the stage.
The stage measures 12 x 15 meters and is 23 meters in height. The artists and technicians have 5 floors of dressing rooms and a foyer at their disposal; all major operas can be played. At the time, the Opéra de Vichy was the largest theatre in the district. And its Art Nouveau interior was, and still is, unique in all of France.
Lyre and Apollo laurels run all around the orchestra, and roses, morning glories, daisies and chrysanthemums bloom in beautiful harmony of gold and ivory with touches of green and a soft purple. The stage is decorated with two white peacocks framing the dates 1864 – 1901 topped off by the mask of tragedy. This decoration is a creation of Parisian painter Léon Rudnicki6. He worked on the decoration during the 1901-1902 winter and completed it in 1903.
The dome is surrounded by a wreath of roses and a crown of lyres. And on four sides it’s decorated with famous French artists’ faces: Sarah Bernhardt, Gabrielle Réjane, Benoît-Constant Coqueline and Jean Mounet-Sully etc.
Isn’t this the most beautiful Art Nouveau theatre you have ever seen in the world? I just couldn’t stop taking pictures and if it weren’t for the guide telling us it was time to go, I would probably still be there, taking pictures of all the breathtaking decorations! Below are a few more of my pictures which I hope you will enjoy. But if you ever have the opportunity, please do visit the theatre yourself and take in the overwhelming beauty!
I highly recommend you book your tour with the Tourist Information Office before you travel to Vichy!
And last but not least, please enjoy this 5.30 min broadcast of ‘Le Monument Préféré des Français’ that was filmed inside the theatre and offers a unique opportunity to have a peek inside. Enjoy!
1 Charles Badger was an architect of English origin, born in 1822. He worked 10 years for the Compagnie Fermière de Vichy, building the Lucas Spa, the 2nd and 3rd class bath establishment and the famous café La Restauration.
2 Charles le Coeur (1830-1906) was the official architect of the Department of the Interior. He occupied many official posts and built several famous high schools: Louis-le-Grand, Fenelon and Le Petit Condorcet de Paris as well as the high schools of Bayonne, Montluçon and Aix-en-Provence.
3 Lucien Woog was a Belgian teacher of architecture at the Paris School of Decorative Arts. Some of the projects he built are the City Hall of Tunis in 1900, the theatre La Cigale in Paris in 1906 and the theatre of Niort in 1912.
4 Emile Robert (1860-1924) was a very famous artist at the beginning of the 20th century. He caused a buzz at the Universal Exposition by installing his studio at the Expo and working before visitors.
5 Pierre Seguin was born in 1872. First he was a student of Lucien Woog and then a teacher at the School of Decorative Arts. He was responsible for the decorations of many Parisian buildings and sculpted the capitals of the Sacré-Coeur in Paris. He is believed to be one of the best 20th century European ornamentalists.
6 Léon Rudnicki (1873-1958) was, just like Seguin, a former student of Woog. He often collaborated with Le Coeur. He also designed book bindings, illustrations and decorations for private customers.