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A musical tour of Paris

18 June 2020

Paris. Has any city inspired so many love songs to itself? From the Eiffel Tower, across the Seine to the Arc de Triomphe and up to the ethereal Montmartre, France’s capital city oozes elegance. Welsh National Opera performed Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris in 1992, but for now we’ll have to make do with a musical tour.

In his programme notes for the premiere of An American in Paris on 13 December 1928 George Gershwin wrote ‘My purpose is to portray the impression of an American visitor in Paris as he strolls about the city and listens to various street noises and absorbs the French atmosphere’. The first performance took place in New York’s Carnegie Hall, but through the inclusion of specially imported Parisian taxi horns, Gershwin ensured the audience felt as if they were there.

Our first taxi drop-off is Palais Garnier. Built for the Paris Opera at Emperor Napoleon III’s bidding, it was the company’s main theatre until 1989, when the Opéra Bastille opened. The Palais Garnier is now mainly used for ballet. Ravel’s Boléro caused a sensation when it premiered there on 20 November 1928. Among the ecstatic audience, a woman was heard screaming ‘Au fou, au fou!’ (The madman! The madman!). When Ravel was told of this, he reportedly replied ‘That lady… she understood.’ Speaking of madmen; the water tank underneath the opera house which has been referred to as a lake, was used as the setting of crime reporter and theatre and opera critic Gaston Leroux’s novel, which in turn inspired Andrew Lloyd Webber’s hit musical The Phantom of the Opera.

Jacques Ibert’s Suite Symphonique (1930) is a journey around Paris in the jazz age. Its first movement Le Métro (no 12 to be exact) takes us from Palais Garnier to the Place Pigalle. Now associated with the female dance troupes of Paris’s exclusive nightlife district, the Can-Can is in a lively 2/4 time and was at first danced to quadrille or galop music. Despite bearing the title of Infernal Gallop, the Act Two dance from the operetta Orpheus in the Underworld by Jacques Offenbach has become synonymous with the high-kicking style and is often referred to as Offenbach’s Can-Can. The dance later appeared in works such as Lehár’s The Merry Widow and Cole Porter’s musical comedy Can-Can (1953).

Puccini’s La bohème, based on Henri Murger’s 1851 novel Scènes de la Vie de Bohème, follows a group of young bohemians living in the Latin quarter of Paris in the 1840s. Despite being premiered in Turin, the opera is not only a vivid and unapologetic tribute to the artists community but also captures the romance of Paris. Another opera inspired by Paris but premiered in Italy, this time Venice’s La Fenice, is La traviata. Verdi’s masterpiece tells the tale of star-crossed lovers Violetta and Alfredo, but it is also a story about the attractions and dangers of 19th century Paris, where the action is set. Star-crossed lovers also feature in Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette, which premiered at the Théâtre-Lyrique during the Paris World exhibition of 1867.

Our last stop takes us back to where we started - Debussy, and his Suite Bergamasque. Its third and most popular movement, Clair de Lune, takes its inspiration from a poem of the same name by Paul Verlaine. This magical piece for solo piano about a beautiful moonlit night is the perfect place to end our tour as we imagine the moonlight shimmering on the Seine from the Pont des Arts.