Category Archives: Europe 2019

Van Gogh @ Atelier des Lumières

Vincent van Gogh’s life is the focus of an immersive experience at L’Atelier des Lumières, Paris’ first digital art museum. In a disused foundry in the city’s bohemian 11th arrondissement, hundreds of the Dutchman’s paintings have been transformed using art and music technology. For 35 minutes, visitors roam around his work, from the dreamy Sunflowers (1888) to the tormented spires of Starry Night (1889).

The Paris venue opened in April 2018 and more than 1.2 million people attended the first exhibit on Gustave Klimt. The digital museum is operated by Culturespaces, which specialises in immersive displays. Director Bruno Monnier says Van Gogh’s colours and motifs are perfect for an immersive experience. In the last ten years of his life, Vincent van Gogh painted more than 2000 works, without any recognition. Today, he is one of the most famous artists in the world. His tragic life has inspired the cinema scene, while museums from all over the world are fighting to show his works. His paintings transformed art history and digital technology can be an excellent way of understanding his world. Not tom mention it doesn’t need the physical paintings to travel!

Inside the exhibit, a selection of Van Gogh’s famous paintings are represented in their entirety, accompanied by commentaries about his life, art and the museum in which it is exhibited. A free mobile app has commentary on these paintings.

Brushstrokes spiralling light and darkness across the tall drying towers, bare walls and water tank below, transforming into Van Gogh’s Starry Night (1889). It feels like standing in the moving water as the stars and lights of the town are reflected down on visitors.

A short programme shown between screenings explains the influence of Japanese art on Van Gogh’s work. A specially commissioned piece, Dreamed Japan: Images of the Floating World, depicts the simple beauty of cherry blossoms, geishas, samurai warriors and spirits. Delighted children circle the floor of the foundry as the waves crash around them to the sound of Claude Debussy’s The Sea and to the fast beat of the Japanese drums.

The walls of the Atelier darken to a deep blue. An illuminated walkway to The Church at Auvers appears. Painted during his last weeks in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, the simple painting depicts his nostalgia for his home in the Netherlands.

The artist lived in several different places, the change of surroundings often reflected in his art. In the days before leaving the asylum in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, Van Gogh embarked on a series of still-life paintings of cut flowers, including Roses and Anemones.

One of the most striking elements of the exhibition is the use of contemporary music. Nina Simone’s Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood powers around the foundry as visitors view some of the famous works, including The Siesta, Van Gogh painted while living in an asylum; the words of the song mirror a cry for understanding in his time of darkness.

To end, the sound of heavy rain fills the venue, getting louder as a stormy sky emerges overhead. Wheat rustles in the breeze and the golden hues of Wheat Field with Crows brighten up the floor. As the crows take flight overhead, you can no longer see the sky. In its place are Van Gogh’s self-portraits.

In the art world, framed canvases in grand museums is so last century! Not only has technology created new mediums such as video installations and soundscapes, it has untethered artworks from their geographical homes. Can’t get to Russia’s Hermitage Museum? There’s a movie presenting its treasures at your local cinema.

The latest offering in the digital art space, however, is something altogether different. Opening its doors in mid-2018, Paris’s newest art centre, Atelier des Lumières, morphs the work of art masters into 360-degree, multistorey sound and light shows.

Inside the hollowed-out shell of the 19th century foundry, the audience is surrounded by an ever-changing visual landscape.

Images are constantly morphing on every surface – floor, walls, columns, the assembled crowd. Children run around in a confetti of light spray and adults are struck still in wonder. Large blobs of paint – purple, pink, green, yellow, orange – are scattered on the walls, floor and ceiling. His paintbrush is hurriedly introduced: deep, decisive brush strokes turning the bareness of the foundry into a colourful space. His Sunflowers masterpiece transforms into bouquets of flowers with multi-coloured petals.

And you won’t just be able to see the painter’s most famous works — you’ll also be able to step inside them. Totally pawsome!

Atelier des Lumières is the brainchild of Culturespaces, an organisation established in 1990 by Bruno Monnier​ to offer a professional management service to public museums and cultural sites in France. Today, it manages 13 sites, including the Roman monuments at Nimes and an automobile museum in Mulhouse, handling everything from ticketing to the creation of historical re-enactments.

The breakthrough in digital art happened when Culturespaces took over the management of a stone quarry at Les Baux-de-Provence. The haunting white limestone of the site had already garnered artistic attention as the setting for Jean Cocteau’s 1960s film Testament of Orpheus. Later, the rock walls were used as the screen for a photographic slide show.

Upping the ante, Culturespaces developed the concept of AMIEX – Art & Music Immersive Experience. “We wanted to create video exhibitions with great artists,” says Atelier des Lumières director Michael Couzigou. And instead of projecting video images randomly onto surfaces, they mapped the entire stone pit to achieve a tailor-made multimedia display.

Using state-of-the-art visuals and audio, artists’ works are transformed as images of their paintings are projected (using 140 laser video projectors) on to (and across) 10-metre-high walls over the vast 3,300 square metre surface area of the renovated 19th century building. These images provide an immersive and panoramic show throughout the space, to a sound track of music using an innovative “motion design” sound system, with 50 speakers programmed to complement the 3D visual experience.

While the Atelier des Lumières immersive exhibitions can bring the world of art across oceans to Paris, there is no reciprocal journey. What happens in the Atelier, stays in the Atelier. Moving the exhibition would require moving all the technology – laser video projectors, sound system, etc. However, Culturespaces is taking its AIMEX concept beyond French national boundaries – the Bunker de Lumières opened last year on South Korea’s Jeju Island in what was a bunker during the Korean War. And back in France, in 2020, Culturespaces will open a digital art centre in Bordeaux in a former German submarine base from WWII. Make art, not war.

Paris Catacombs

The Paris Catacombs were given their present form – corridors of neatly arranged skulls and tibias – in 1809 when Napoleon’s Prefect of the Seine Frochot and the Inspector-General of Quarries Hériart de Thury undertook to arrange the huge volume of remains in a pattern designed to impress visitors. Rome had its catacombs, so the idea was that the now-imperial city of Paris should have them too – and that preferably they should be better.

The Paris Catacombs are strange: a network of subterranean tunnels carefully lined with human bones, punctuated only by a few placards issuing warnings, pithy quotes, and vaguely identifying labels to guide visitors on their way through a macabre historical space. With the exception of electric lighting, the Catacombs have gone relatively unmodified since opening to the public in 1809. Even then, in the tumultuous cultural climate of early 19th century Paris, the Catacombs were an extraordinary sight to behold. As an early visitor described his experience:

We enter into this palace of death; its hideous features surround us; the walls are papered over: bones bend into arcs, rise into columns, an artistic hand created a kind of mosaic out of these final remains of humanity, whose ordered regularity only adds to the profound contemplation that this space inspires… Ten generations have been swallowed up here, and this subterranean population is estimated to be three times larger than its above ground counterpart… Inscriptions, placed on limestone pillars, indicate which Parisian neighborhoods once contained these remains. Here, all distinctions of sex, wealth, and rank have finally disappeared.

The tunnels beneath the streets of Paris are remnants of a time when limestone quarries (carrières) were mined to build Paris into a thriving city. Modern Paris sits atop massive formations of limestone and gypsum. The Romans were the first to harvest the stone; their bathhouses, sculptures, and arena can still be found on the Île de la Cité and in the Latin Quarter. Over the centuries, as Roman Lutetia became Paris (stone upon and from which Paris is built is known as Lutetian limestone, after the Roman name for Paris: Lutetia), quarrymen burrowed deeper and wider, carving out the stuff of the city’s great buildings — like the Louvre and Notre Dame — and smaller buildings like the the quintessential six-story apartment buildings with their grey-beige blush. Open pits evolved into networks of underground galleries.

In the beginning the quarries lay far beyond the city limits. But as the city grew, parts of it sprawled directly above old tunnels. This progression happened over generations and without oversight. Quarrymen labored in an unregulated world of torchlight, choking dust, and crushing accidents. When they exhausted a quarry, they stuffed it with rubble or simply abandoned it. At the surface, no one paid much attention. No one realized how porous the foundations of Paris had become.

The first major collapse occurred in December 1774, when an unstable tunnel crumbled, swallowing houses and people along what is now the Avenue Denfert-Rochereau. Four years later a road in Menilmontant swallowed up seven Parisians, whose bodies were recovered over the next three weeks up to 24 meters below street level. More holes opened over the next few years, sending more houses tumbling into darkness. Louis XVI responded and created an inspection unit for the “Quarries Below Paris and Surrounding Plains,” headed by a general inspector named Charles-Axel Guillaumot, and tasked with regulating the quarries for the purposes of public safety. It was Guillaumot who initiated the first mapping of the void network, with a view to consolidating existing spaces and regulating further quarrying activities. Slowly, teams of inspectors worked through the quarries, shoring them up. To make their job easier they dug more tunnels to connect the isolated networks.

Small collapses still happen every year; as recently as 1961, the earth swallowed an entire neighborhood in the southern suburbs, killing 21 people. Inspectors from the Inspection Générale des Carrières (IGC) survey the tunnels regularly to make sure Paris doesn’t collapse into the quarries that riddle its foundations.

Map of the catacombs created by the IGC (Inspection Générale des Carrières), 1857

The urgent need to update and rationalize the space beneath the city also had an above ground corollary. Just as the city’s historical foundation seemed incapable of supporting Paris’s living population, its dead proved equally difficult to contain. Throughout the second half of the 18th century, a wide range of critics (from Enlightenment reformers to ecclesiastics) warned about the dangers of Paris’s long-standing practice of burying the dead in mass graves adjacent to churchyards. Keeping the dead in such proximity to the living was not only unhygienic, they argued, but potentially lethal. A 1763 status report on all of Paris’s cemeteries vividly noted that “the burials that take place in Paris are thickening the air” and surmised that “the cadavers buried beneath our feet are the source of otherwise mysterious illnesses” affecting city dwellers. The inhabitants of the Montmartre community wrote a particularly vehement complaint to the Parlement of Paris in which they made repeated references to an impending “medical epidemic” that could result from the dead infecting the living with their cadaverous vapors.

Paris’s oldest and largest burial space, the Cemetery of the Holy Innocents, was a primary target of these types of complaints. Reformers had been petitioning for the closure of Innocents on the grounds of public safety throughout the 18th century. These fears were vindicated in 1780 when a heap of decomposing human debris broke through the basement walls of houses that bordered the cemetery. The medical expert Antoine-Alexandre Cadet de Vaux gave a report before the Royal Academy of Sciences, where he explained that the air in Innocents was as infected and insalubrious as that in the city’s worst hospitals. Relying on the most up-to-date scientific knowledge, he described the pernicious and near-lethal effects that cemetery air had on people who were exposed to it, including suffocation, trembling, paleness, vertigo, and vomiting. At the end of his report he imagined a better Paris, where everyone breathed cleaner air, where future generations would be spared the effects of “cadaverous exhalations,” and where the dead would “finally stop troubling the living.” Louis XVI’s government responded with a definitive decree that ordered Innocents — and eventually all urban cemeteries — permanently closed.

Human remains had been accumulating in the Cemetery of the Holy Innocents and its charnel houses for eight centuries, and they urgently needed a safe new home. In 1782 an author credited simply as “Villedieu” published a short essay proposing an elegant solution to this crisis. After providing an admiring overview of ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Roman burial practices, he noted that late 18th century Paris found itself in a fortuitous position: “The hand of art, driven by that of chance, has created for this immense city something that its people could have executed themselves only with millions of arms and centuries of work. With its comprehensively mined underground, Paris offers at both its center and its periphery perfectly prepared catacombs.” He urged the French state to take advantage of “these deep excavations, these subterranean deserts” and “all the secrets that chemistry uncovers daily in its laboratories” to set up a high-tech but affordable system to embalm and efficiently store the city’s dead in underground caverns. Four years later a modified version of this idea was put into practice, and on the evening of April 7, 1786, a small group of clergymen accompanied the top three administrators in charge of the quarries to consecrate the Paris Catacombs. From that point forward there were regular nighttime cortèges to the Catacombs as cartloads of bones were transferred into jumbled piles underground.

As more parish graveyards were shut down in the name of public hygiene and morality, the bones of more Parisians found their way into the Catacombs (in 1789, 1792, 1793, and 1794). The Catacombs were never supposed to act as a cemetery for the recently deceased, yet after several notorious episodes of violence, that is precisely what they became. After royal guards shot and killed several Parisians during a celebration in August 1788, they transported their corpses directly to the Catacombs. The Réveillon riots a year later saw several more Parisians buried immediately in the Catacombs after falling to royal bullets. Most infamously, as many as a thousand victims from the 1792 September prison massacres found their way underground following those notorious days. In each of these instances, the Catacombs served as a useful space where potentially controversial bodies could be quickly stashed away in anonymity and forgotten, since the Catacombs were not yet an accessible city space.

The Catacombs sat relatively unused and unknown for over a decade after the Terror. As one contemporary article put it, “During the successive revolutions which distracted France, the Catacombs fell into a state of confusion, and in many places, of ruin, the air had become stagnant and unwholesome, and water, oozing from above, had rendered them extremely unsafe.” This situation reversed in 1809, when the minister of the interior named a thirty-two-year-old engineer, Louis-Etienne-François Héricart-Ferrand de Thury, as the new head of the Parisian underground. One of Héricart de Thury’s first orders of business was to substantially renovate the municipal ossuary and transform it from a repository of scattered bones into a public monument. Within four months enough work had been completed to open the space for public visits, although construction would continue for the next three years.

On the eve of the Catacombs’ grand opening, Héricart de Thury wrote a brief statement that explained the history of the Catacombs and justified his project to make a public museum out of a municipal ossuary:

I believed it was necessary to take special care in the conservation of this monument, considering the intimate rapport that will surely exist between the Catacombs and the events of the French Revolution; as a result of this work [the Catacombs] were repaired, their interior was restored, the ventilation system was improved, [and] bones were arranged with as much art as skill. Nothing was spared to make this monument worthy of public veneration.

The small monument to the September massacres did not make a substantial impact on the average Catacombs visitor. We know this because there exists an exceptional record of the ossuary’s first few years in the form of a guestbook that Héricart de Thury placed at the Catacombs’ exit, ostensibly to keep track of who visited the Catacombs and what they thought about such a unique new monument. Between 1809 and 1813 thousands of individuals passed through the Catacombs and signed their name in the book. Fewer than ten of these people commented on the Revolution. Those who did stand out, such as “Professeur Celebrini”, who transcribed two short Jean-Baptiste Rousseau poems and dedicated one of them to the remains of the victims of the September massacres. Similarly, on August 6, 1812, someone named Dupont wrote that his heart was frozen with horror and cried out for the victims of the Terror. Then, on August 11, someone else composed a poem that described the bones as the victims of wicked men that would forever “attest to the evils of our Republic.” These passages are evocative and well composed, but they do not represent the reactions of the overwhelming majority of Catacombs visitors, who appear to have paid little attention to Héricart de Thury’s expiatory intent.

The nearly 300 km of tunnels took on other uses over the course of history. During WWII some sections became hideouts for French Resistance fighters, while other areas were converted by German soldiers into bunkers. One lesser known use? The cultivation of a unique species of mushroom.

Since the 17th century, gardeners grew what would become known as Paris mushrooms in the gardens at Versailles. King Louis XIV is said to have been a particular fan of what was then known as the “rosé des près” or “pink of the fields”. The name came from the mushroom’s color, which is oddly similar to that of Lutetian limestone. But in the 19th century, this culture moved underground. In 1811, a Parisian farmer named Chambry, after tossing the fruits of a disappointing harvest into an abandoned quarry, realized that Paris mushrooms, unlike most mushroom species, which thrive in forests, grow better underground. Cultivating them in dark limestone quarries also turned them into a year-round crop.

By 1880, more than 300 mushroom farmers worked in Parisian quarries to produce 1,000 tons of Paris mushrooms each year. Most of the quarries were not accessible by foot, so farmers used wooden ladders or pulley systems to lower themselves down in baskets. Once underground, they used hand-held lanterns to plant and gather mushrooms.

Today the tunnels are roamed by a different clandestine group, a loose and leaderless community whose members sometimes spend days and nights below the city. They’re called cataphiles, people who love the Paris underground.

In 2017, thieves stole more than 300 bottles of vintage wine, reportedly worth more than €250,000, after burrowing into the private cellar of an apartment in the chic 6th arrondissement, near the Luxembourg Gardens, from the catacombs.

Entering the quarries has been illegal since 1955, so cataphiles tend to be young people fleeing the surface world and its rules. The scene blossomed in the 1970s and ’80s, when traditional Parisian rebelliousness got a fresh jolt from punk culture. Going underground was easier then, because there were many more open entrances. Some cataphiles discovered they could walk into the quarries through forgotten doorways in their school basements, then crawl onward into tunnels filled with bones — the famous catacombs. In places only they knew, the cataphiles partied, staged performances, created art, took drugs. Freedom reigned underground, even anarchy.

In a sandy chamber known as the “beach,” a wave rolls across a wall painted (and repainted) by cataphiles in the style of Japanese printmaker Hokusai. Such works can take hundreds of hours—the painting but also the carrying in of supplies.

Cataphiles make some of the best guides to the Paris underworld. Most Parisians are only dimly aware of its extent, even though, as they ride the Métro, they may be hurtling above the bones of their ancestors.

The bones of some six million Parisians reside here, nearly three times the population of the city above. Their skeletons were exhumed from overcrowded cemeteries in the 18th and 19th centuries and literally poured into old quarry tunnels. The city stopped moving bones into the ossuaries in 1860. The oldest bones may hail from the Merovingian era, more than 1,200 years ago. All are anonymous, disarticulated. All individuality forgotten.

The small portion of the Paris Catacombs open to visitors today covers 1.7 km and if you stick to the path, you will not get lost! It’s also very safe. The girls looked very hard, but didn’t find any monsters!

The public entrance to the Paris Catacombs is located at 1, avenue du Colonel Henri Rol-Tanguy in the 14th arrodissement. Don’t bother with a private guided tour to skip the long lines, best to pre-purchase your priority access ticket online (it includes an audio guide) from the Paris Catacombs website. The flow of visitors is managed very well.

Immersed in Music and Light

30 years in the planning and 8 years in the design and construction, the Philharmonie de Paris, a shimmering metallic structure conceived by Pritzker Prize winner Jean Nouvel, located in Parc de la Villette, opened on 14 January 2015, after two months of 24/7 construction to get things ready for the opening concert. Controversy had dogged the Philharmonie from the beginning. Cost overruns, its relatively remote location, issues concerning artistic decision-making and even whether Paris really needed a new concert hall were some of the things people were talking about.

There was little disagreement, however, about the spectacular nature of the building designed by the architect Jean Nouvel, whose previous work has included concert halls in Lucerne, Switzerland, and Copenhagen, Denmark, and the redesigned Lyon opera house. The extravagant aluminum structure looks like a collection of randomly stacked slabs, with significant space between them and a vertical slab cutting through the others.

On opening day, the exterior and a number of ancillary spaces were far from complete, and the auditorium was only 95% complete (exposed MDF, chipboard, half-painted flooring, and chair numbers written on Post-it notes 🙂 were on show) with all the key acoustical elements in place for the opening night concert, but not with the acoustics commissioning complete. Indeed, the first set of commissioning measurements did not take place until 4 days after the opening concert (10pm to 5am). There were two more commissioning sessions over the following 9 months.

The acoustic commissioning the Grand Salle of the Philharmonie de Paris was never going to be straight forward due to its multiple uses – classical symphonic, choral and recital repertoire, contemporary music, Jazz and World Music. Add in highly adaptable stage and seating arrangements, and the mechanics of making these changes, and a protracted series of measurements, with both occupied and unoccupied seats, were inevitable. Complicating this task have been cost overruns, construction delays, politics and an extensive concert program booked out months in advance. By the time little bears visited, it had all been sorted! 🙂

The Orchestre de Paris performing the inaugural concert at the Philharmonie de Paris in January 2015.
The Orchestre de Paris performing the inaugural concert at the Philharmonie de Paris in January 2015.

Jean Nouvel refused to attend the opening, in protest. After the Philharmonie’s inaugural concert, the New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini wrote that, “from first impressions,” the concert hall “seems acoustically marvelous,” though he noted that “its true character will take time to emerge.” It goes to show that the right project team had delivered the right stuff, even without the fine-tuning that took place later.

The rooftop, two restaurants and exhibition space had staggered openings over the following months from the opening concert.

Walkway to the rooftop
Walkway to the rooftop
Walkway to the rooftop

For Nouvel, the space around the Philharmonie is as important as the space within. Those not attending a concert or a music education class can linger on the steps or climb them to the rooftop looking point which offers a view of Paris far more eclectic than Haussmann’s uniformity. Up here, the vista encompasses the science museum with its mirrored geode, the former abattoir converted into a festival hall, Bernard Tschumi’s architectural contributions from the late 1980s, and the industrial suburb of Pantin.

View from the rooftop of the Philharmonie
View from the rooftop of the Philharmonie

Beyond the lyrical birds in their lustrous shades of grey, Nouvel introduced a metal mesh that, like a theatrical scrim, makes the building appear impenetrable during the day (while not obstructing the view outward); at night, the interior light takes over and passersby can see inside.

The Philharmonie de Paris was the vision of the late Pierre Boulez (1925-2016) – the potentate of late 20th century music, who dreamed of launching a “Centre Pompidou for music” in the Parc de la Villette. Boulez saw his dream came to fruition, with the Philharmonie forming part of a music precinct which includes the Cité de la Musique and the Conservatoire de Paris.

Plans for a big Paris concert hall date from the 1970s. They were put on ice with the construction and 1989 inauguration of a huge opera house on the Place de la Bastille. What Paris got, six years later, was the Cité de la Musique (part of the Mitterrand “Grands Projets”): a 900-seat concert hall and musical-instrument museum in the Parc de la Villette, on the border between Paris and Pantin, a suburb. It took 20 more years for the Philharmonie to open next door (incorporating the Cité de la Musique).

The location of the Philharmonie in the 19th arrondissement on the border between central Paris and the eastern suburbs, in an attempt to ‘bring the music to the people and bring the people to the venue’, paid off. This move was controversial as the élite regular concert goers from the centre of Paris would have to travel 20 to 30 minutes to hear the symphony rather than walk. However, advance ‘sell out’ performances throughout the first year of operation, with a high ratio of new audience, have proved the concept a success. Concerts in the main hall (all genres combined) run at 95 percent capacity on average, with the Philharmonie pulling in patrons from all over Paris and its immediate suburbs, thanks to a diverse program. What appears to be a winning formula — music-education workshops and affordable tickets — was pioneered over two decades by the Cité de la Musique, and is a strategy now adopted by the Hamburg Elbphilharmonie as well.

The project brief was published in 2006, and it included an architectural brief, ‘Le Programme General’, consisting of a 153 page document with 14 appendices, as well as an acoustic brief, ‘Le Programme Acoustique’, probably the most comprehensive acoustic brief ever written for a concert hall.

98 teams submitted their designs and at the beginning of 2007, six teams were selected to enter a 10 week design competition.

The architectural brief was quite specific without wanting to stifle the creativity of the design team. The requirements asked for the main hall to be highly adaptable and suitable for symphony, jazz, rock and world music; and for the hall to be a surround hall with significant audience behind and beside the stage (in symphony mode). The objective was to “limit the distance between the audience and the musicians by installing the latter at the heart of the auditorium amongst a present and perceptible audience that will share the musician’s feelings (the complete opposite of the frontal and exclusive relationship is required).” Clearly the requirements were not for a conservative concert hall with an end stage.

The most significant requirement from the architectural brief was that the ‘design must be a new typology – it cannot be one of the existing concert hall forms; shoebox, vineyard, fan or arena.’ The acoustic brief called for great clarity (all instrumental voices to be distinct) and high reverberance (makes the sound from musical instruments more loud, rich and full-bodied), considered by some acousticians to be mutually exclusive, and specified more than 10 acoustical parameters to be achieved in the room.

The Jean Nouvel (lead architect) / Sir Harold Marshall (lead acoustician) team used the dying art of drawing in the design workshops to progress from a concept idea to actual design.

Marshall ‘Restaurant’ Cross-section – origins of the bicameral concept

The solution to the challenging brief was found in two nested chambers – an inner space producing visual and acoustical intimacy between audience and performer and an outer space with its own architectural and acoustical presence providing the high reverberance required by the brief. Nouvel and the architectural team developed the concept idea into the architectural concept with the inner volume providing great clarity and the outer volume providing high reverberance. Marshall termed this the Bicameral Adaptable Concert Hall.

3-D printed model of the bicameral space for the main hall
1:50 Acoustic Scale Model with a Lego audience 🙂

As with other great architects, Jean Nouvel was able to take the acoustical elements conceived by Marshall and turn them into architectural features. The floating ‘inner reflectors’ from Marshall’s concept sketches became the ‘nuage’ (clouds) which determine the visual character of the room when you first enter the inner space. The early reflections required to make this design work are provided by these nuage along with the ribbons (reflectors at the rear of the seating pods), the balcony fronts and the overstage reflectors. These surfaces all contribute to defining the inner volume.

Computer simulation submitted with the competition documents. It is a view from within the inner volume showing the seating pods, the floating nuage and the outer volume backlit in orange.
The theater’s main hall in its final stages of construction.

Little bears approve of Jean Nouvel’s surreally imaginative interior, an asymmetric assemblage of gigantic floating panels, clouds and boomerangs, of crazily diverse surfaces, colours, and acoustically adjustable geometries and movable seating and stage configurations, all nested within an outer shell whose chaotic lines and curves are covered in 340,000 geometrically tessellating metallic and concrete birds.

Time for a little music to test all these surfaces… It was the Brahms Violin Concerto with Janine Jansen on violin, and Sibelius Symphony No 4 with the Orchestre de Paris, and Daniel Harding, its Music Director, as conductor.

Janine Jansen violin
Daniel Harding conductor
Orchestre de Paris

Janine Jansen, the flamboyant Dutch violinist, is one of the world’s great violin players. She comes from a musical family: her father is an organist and harpsichord player (as is one of her brothers), her mother is a singer, and another brother plays the cello in a Dutch radio orchestra. Her uncle is the renowned bass Peter Kooy.

She began to study the violin at the age of six after first considering the cello. She appeared as a soloist with the National Youth Orchestra of Scotland in 2001 when she performed the Brahms Violin Concerto.

Ha, ha! The concerto was recorded the day after little bears attended the concert and here it is…

Janine Jansen violin
Daniel Harding conductor
Orchestre de Paris

As for Daniel Harding, the British conductor will step down as Music Director of the Orchestre de Paris at the end of the 2019/2020 season to take a one year sabbatical from his music career to focus on his ambition of being a commercial pilot. Harding had qualified as a commercial aviator and during the sabbatical year 2020/2021 he will fly for Air France as a copilot!

Daniel Harding conductor
Orchestre de Paris

A beary joyful evening…

Don Giovanni in Paris

Having missed Don Giovanni in Perth last year, little bears were very excited to see it in Paris at Palais Garnier 🙂

Checking in on the set set up and the rehearsals to make sure it’s all good to go… 🙂

Philippe Sly and Etienne Dupuis in rehearsal with director Ivo Van Hove

On January 15, 1787 Mozart wrote a letter to his pupil and friend Gottfried von Jacquin: ‘Here they talk about nothing but Figaro. Nothing is played, sung or whistled but Figaro. No opera is drawing like Figaro. Nothing, nothing but Figaro.’

Le nozze di Figaro had been premiered in Vienna on May 1, 1786, but it was the production in Prague later that year, mounted by Pasquale Bondini’s Italian opera company, that was the greater success. Mozart and his wife travelled there in January 1787, and it was from Prague that the composer wrote to Jacquin. By the time he and Constanze left for Vienna on February 8 he had secured a commission to write a new opera for Bondini.

That opera was Don Giovanni, with Lorenzo da Ponte again providing the libretto. It was Da Ponte who first suggested an opera based on the legendary Don Juan, a fictitious character who is a symbol of libertinism. Originating in popular legend, he was first given literary personality in the tragic drama El burlador de Sevilla (1630; The Seducer of Seville), attributed to the Spanish dramatist Tirso de Molina. Through Tirso’s tragedy, Don Juan became an archetypcal character in the West, as familiar as Don Quixote, Hamlet, and Faust.

The legend of Don Juan tells how, at the height of his licentious career, he seduced a girl of noble family and killed her father, who had tried to avenge her. Later, seeing a commemorative effigy on the father’s tomb, he flippantly invited it to dine with him, and the stone ghost duly arrived for dinner as a harbinger of Don Juan’s death. In the original Spanish tragedy, Don Juan’s attractive qualities — his vitality, his arrogant courage, and his sense of humour — heighten the dramatic value of the catastrophe. The power of the drama derives from its rapid pace, the impression it gives of cumulative tension as Don Juan’s enemies gradually hound him to destruction, and the awareness that the Don is goaded to defy even the ghostly forces of the unknown. In the end he refuses to repent and is eternally damned.

In the 17th century, the Don Juan story became known to strolling Italian players, some of whom traveled to France with this theme in their repertoire of pantomime, and by the 19th century many versions of the Don Juan legend existed. Other famous non-Spanish versions are Molière’s play Dom Juan; ou, Le Festin de pierre (first performed 1665; Don Juan; or, The Stone Feast), based on earlier French arrangements; and two works dealing with a similar but different Don Juan, Prosper Mérimée’s uncharacteristic short story Les Âmes du Purgatoire (1834; Souls in Purgatory) and the drama Don Juan de Marana (1836) by Alexandre Dumas père. Early English versions — such as Thomas Shadwell’s The Libertine (1675), for example — are considered uninspired, but the character reappears with a new force in Lord Byron’s long satiric poem Don Juan (1819–24) and in George Bernard Shaw’s drama Man and Superman (1903). Later Spanish versions retain Don Juan’s likable qualities and avoid the calculated cynicism of certain foreign versions.

As for the music side, before Mozart, two other musicians try to assess the literary theme of Don Juan: Gluck in a ballet based on Molière’s work, Don Juan ou Le Festin de Pierre (Don Juan, or the Stone Guest’s Banquet), which premiered in Vienna in October 1761, and Gazzaniga in an one act opera, Don Giovanni, o sia Il convitato di pietra (Don Giovanni, or The Stone Guest), which premiered in Venice in February 1787. But it was through Mozart’s opera that the legend of Don Juan was assured enduring popularity.

1787 was to be a busy year for both Mozart and da Ponte; moreover, Mozart had to deal with the emotional shock of his father’s death in May. The Mozarts returned to Prague in early October 1787 with some of the music still to be composed. The story for the opera’s overture goes like this: Mozart was out drinking with friends October 28th, 1787, the night before Don Giovanni’s premiere, when one friend remarked that Mozart had not written the overture for his opera yet. At around midnight, Mozart went to his room and composed this work within about three hours that night, kept awake by his wife, Constanze, with stories and punch. On the night of the premiere, copyists had just finished making copies of this hastily written overture before the performance. The orchestra was assembled, the crowd was gathered, and just before the curtains went up the musicians were handed this wonder of a piece. Legend has it that the musicians sight-read the overture so well that the audience that night at the Estates Theatre in Prague applauded the work enthusiastically.

Mozart knew all but one of the singers and, as usual, he tailored his music to their voices. He even celebrated – or teased – Teresa Saporiti, who sang Donna Anna, by having Giovanni sing the word saporito (‘tasty’) four times in rapid succession. After two postponements, the opera premiered on October 29. It ran for many performances, and its success led the Emperor Joseph II to command a production in Vienna. This took place on May 7, 1788; and the changes that Mozart made caused a problem that is still with us. Don Ottavio was given a new aria (‘Dalla sua pace’) in Act 1, but his Act 2 aria was replaced by an aria for Donna Elvira which followed a new comic scene for Zerlina and Leporello. Recordings and stage productions almost always conflate both Prague and Vienna, without the comic scene.

That problem is nothing compared to controversy Mozart’s operas pose these days. Don Giovanni is perhaps the most obvious example, with an eponymous antihero who runs around violating everything with a pulse until he’s ultimately dragged into hell. In the The Marriage of Figaro, Count Almaviva spends three and a half acts plotting to exercise his droit du seigneur (or “right of the lord”) over the maid Susanna on her wedding night — only to repent halfway through the finale. Both Don Giovanni and The Marriage of Figaro have, as of late, received a spate of modern, social media–based stagings designed to highlight their relevance. Champions of these works see them as progressive. But many critics feel that they glorify the repugnant behavior and patriarchal values they depict — and question their place in the repertoire.

But does the opera really glorify that behaviour? With the full title Il dissoluto punito, ossia il Don Giovanni (The Libertine Punished, or, Don Giovanni), the opera’s moralistic stance is evident from its title, The Libertine Punished. Although Da Ponte’s Don Giovanni is an odd mixture; at times the title character is clearly vilified, while at others Da Ponte’s interpretation is unclear. As a dramma giocoso (literally “drama with jokes”), it treads the line between comedy and tragedy, making it harder for Mozart to employ the musical effects he applied to Le nozze di Figaro, without undermining the work’s seriousness.

Mozart’s music is a running musical commentary on the libretto, complete with informative wisdom and inside jokes. Mozart’s audiences were familiar with certain compositional conventions, which assigned meaning to everything from two-note rhythmic figures to the overall key of a piece, and Mozart used these conventions to interpret and colour Da Ponte’s libretto.

From the opening scene, Mozart quietly champions Donna Anna, Don Giovanni’s would-be victim, as she chases him from her rooms. Mozart sets her words to militant dotted rhythms — without the subverting grace notes — that climb for two and a half measures before her line peaks and cascades to a resolution. Don Giovanni’s subsequent answer falls after only one measure — before reaching the equivalent high point — indicating Donna Anna’s moral high ground and foreshadowing her eventual triumph. Donna Anna later sings the commanding “Or sai chi l’onore” aria (“now you know who sought to steal my honor”), in which she commands Don Ottavio to aid her in avenging her father, whom Don Giovanni has killed. The aria utilizes a combination of dotted figures and dramatic leaps to show her anger, strength, and nobility. These figures rise in a majestic sequence, celebrating her righteousness and imbuing her character with tremendous power. Don Giovanni’s arias are comparatively simpler — both harmonically and structurally — with none of the substance or complexity Mozart gives to Donna Anna.

Mozart’s handling of the opera’s two death scenes makes for an even clearer comparison. The murder of the Commendatore (Donna Anna’s father) is followed by a sad and somber interlude, set over pulsing, unsettling triplets in the accompaniment. It’s followed by Donna Anna’s tragic and unusually melodic recitative, which leads into her duet with Don Ottavio, set in the opera’s primary key of D minor. Meanwhile, Don Giovanni’s death is followed by a cheerful chorus — set in G Major, a key which traditionally symbolizes peace and accord. In this final chorus, each character is given a short epilogue, taking us through several modulations and tempo changes, after which Mozart ends the opera in the key of D Major — the key of victory and rejoicing.

This season’s production of Don Giovanni at Paris Opera is an Ivo Van Hove production, his second staging for the Paris Opera, after Boris Godounov last season.

Designs were by Jan Versweyveld with costumes by An D’Huys, choreography by Isabelle Horovitz and video by Christopher Ash.

In case there was any doubt on whose team Mozart was, #MeToo or #NotMeToo, Belgian set designer Jan Versweyveld created a set as sterile as possible and stripped of any eroticism, allowing the cast to bring a breath of fresh air to this harsh Don Giovanni.

The unique and imposing setting, made of three monolithic, cold stone houses, was impressive. Behind the houses, mirrors created the illusion of a dense cityscape. The structures rotated slowly, almost imperceptibly, not unlike the shifting desires and balances of power among the characters.

Étienne Dupuis as Don Giovanni and Philippe Sly as Leporello

Dramatically lit by a frosty nocturnal glow at the first warning shot of the overture, the buildings became cleverly bathed by warmer tones, reorienting themselves as the plot progresses, the single horizon gradually breaking down into a series of dark alleys. Are the characters who are wandering around these buildings, or are the buildings themselves that gradually tighten around Don Giovanni? Visually, the effect was splendid, as well as being one of the many examples of technical excellence for which the Opéra de Paris has been renowned for centuries.

Nicole Car as Donna Elvira and Étienne Dupuis as Don Giovanni

Versweyveld’s stylish grey set echoed Escher and Piranesi, but also the disorienting forced perspective of Borromini and de Chirico. There’s no color even in the costumes — for the most part black, white and shades of gray. An D’Huys’ costumes were vaguely contemporary, mid-20th-century Italian, making the characters look like any man on the street, but with clear delineation of hierarchy and class, that this opera needs.

Jan Versweyveld’s lighting was highly effective, often from within the rooms of the set. With the gloom and faces in shadow for the opening scene making credible Donna Anna’s claim that she did not see the face of her attacker.

The Commendatore saves Anna from Giovanni’s clutches, with Leporello observing at right.
Jacquelyn Wagner as Donna Anna, Étienne Dupuis as Don Giovanni, Ain Anger as il Commendatore and Philippe Sly as Leporello

The only touches of color come in the Act I finale, with masked guests and mannequins in bright 18th century costumes, and later in the cheery flowers and furnishings of the Seville street scene in the final tableau.

Act 1 finale from the Paris Opera production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni
Act 1 finale from the Paris Opera production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni

Don Giovanni wears a trim suit and tie, and a gun at his waist. He’s a local crime boss or something like it, flashing his firearm and bullying others to get what he wants. With Etienne Dupuis’s dubious, gun carrying Don Giovanni and Philippe Sly’s Leporello dressed similarly, with similar beards, you got the impression that Leporello was less Don Giovanni’s servant than his protegee, and a man both afraid and trapped, destined to be a disposable fall guy when the moment comes. The swapping of identities in Act Two was neatly and believably done.

Étienne Dupuis as Don Giovanni and Philippe Sly as Leporello

The re-focusing of Don Giovanni and Leporello’s relationship helped us understand why Leporello stayed with his master in a modern servant-less age. Leporello wants to be Don Giovanni. Philippe Sly was in the vein of fierce Leporello which seem to be the vogue at the moment. His asides were less comic comments to the audience than his own rumbling commentary on his master’s behaviour.

Philippe Sly as Leporello and Étienne Dupuis as Don Giovanni

Etienne Dupuis’s Don Giovanni clearly had a vein of great anger and cruelty running through him, with an expectation of being obeyed, yet he was capable of great charm, suaveness and sexual magnetism; you could understand why he succeeded in all those seductions. But what Dupuis let you see was that this was a facade, and the man was deeply flawed with the final banquet demonstrating the sheer grossness of Giovanni’s appetites.

When we first see Don Giovanni, the pathological womanizer is mid-conquest, attempting to force himself on Donna Anna. In the libretto, her father, the Commendatore, challenges him to a duel and is killed. Here, the Commendatore doesn’t even have a weapon: Don Giovanni simply pulls out a gun and casually shoots him. Soon after, in mourning, Donna Anna lays a single rose at the foot of the stage; it remains there the rest of the performance, the only dash of color and a constant reminder of the crime at the heart of this three-hour tale.

Don Giovanni believes himself to be the Don Juan legend – he has convinced himself that he is capable of seducing all the women cited in Leporello’s list. And yet, in the opera, his exploits are not very convincing. Donna Anna rejects him and only Donna Elvira is in love with him. The only time in the work where we actually see him seducing someone is during the duet with Zerlina. But we know all too well that the young peasant girl is just the umpteenth victim to whom he promises marriage so he can spend a night with her only to abandon afterwards, just as he did with Donna Elvira in Burgos.

As the set pieces turn, the drama continues – the antagonism between Giovanni and Leporello, with Leporello cruelly rubbing in Giovanni’s sexual exploits to Elvira, Masetto angrily snapping at Zerlina, Giovanni coldly setting up the ambush of Leporello. It’s clear van Hove is also interested in something else. Like many of van Hove’s productions, this Don Giovanni is populated by beautiful people prone to desperation and violence.

Philippe Sly as Leporello and Nicole Car as Donna Elvira
Étienne Dupuis as Don Giovanni, Mikhail Timoshenko as Masetto and Elsa Dreisig as Zerlina

Don Ottavio took resolute charge of the vengeance to come, Giovanni brutally beat-up Masetto. Donna Anna, horrified at her aggressor, was selfishly cruel to Don Ottavio. Elvira doggedly chased Giovanni, while Giovanni focused full determination to seduce the perfect woman. Leporello, finally losing all patience with Giovanni, picked up the Commendatore’s dinner table and threw it across the room.

Jacquelyn Wagner as Donna Anna, Stanislas de Barbeyrac as Don Ottavio, Nicole Car as Donna Elvira and Etienne Dupuis as Don Giovanni
Philippe Sly as Leporello and Étienne Dupuis as Don Giovanni

While Don Giovanni is presented as a sociopath, the other men are worth as much scrutiny, the production teasing out the pushy paternalism of Don Ottavio, the class-anxiety machismo of Masetto and the guilt by association of Leporello, endearing though he may be.

The climactic scene was rendered marvelously. Don Giovanni went straight into the seething hell that had been leaking steam through the stage floor from the downbeat of the overture.

After Giovanni and Leporello messy the stage by eating like pigs — flinging pasta and chicken, pouring an entire bottle of wine into a single, overflowing glass — the set’s three buildings snap into a position that shows only their bare, flat sides, which become canvases for increasingly zoomed-in, eventually suffocating video projections of swirling, naked bodies in hell.

Afterwards, as the characters sing the opera’s happy epilogue, the buildings return to their original positions. Only now they’re colorfully thriving, with bright awnings and flowering plants — as if Don Giovanni’s end had broken the gloom and made way for a sunny spring.

The Paris Opera cast this show with young international singers. French-Canadian baritone Étienne Dupuis was Don Giovanni, French-Canadian bass-baritone Philippe Sly was Leporello, American soprano Jacuelyn Wagner was Donna Anna, Australian soprano Nicole Car was Elvira, French tenor Stanilas de Barbeyrac was Don Ottavio, Russian bass-baritone Mikhail Timoshenko was Masetto, Franco-Danish soprano Elsa Dreisig was Zerlina and Estonian bass Ain Anger was the Commendatore.

Mikhail Timoshenko as Masetto, Elsa Dreisig as Zerlina, Jacquelyn Wagner as Donna Anna, Stanislas de Barbeyrac as Don Ottavio, Philippe Sly as Leporello and Nicole Car as Donna Elvira
Mikhail Timoshenko, Elsa Dreisig, Stanislas de Barbeyrac, Jacquelyn Wagner, conductor Philippe Jordan, Étienne Dupuis, Philippe Sly, Nicole Car and Ain Anger

Well, that was fun!

Étienne Dupuis, Philippe Sly, Ain Anger, Jacquelyn Wagner and Nicole Car

Just Passing Through

Little bears at Versailles, 2019

When Louis XIV first decided to build a new palace and move his court out of Paris, there was nothing on his chosen site at Versailles but a small hunting lodge.

Thanks to the A team of Louis le Vau (architect), André le Nôtre (landscape designer), and Charles le Brun (interior decorator and painter), Louis XIV’s enormous and stylish palace was completed 21 years after it was begun in 1661 allowing Louis (and his closest friends, family, courtiers, servants and soldiers — all 20,000 of them) to officially set up court there. By that point, the next superstar architect, Jules Hardouin Mansart, had taken up the design reins.

Of the 700 rooms inside the palace, there are a few notable ones that served very particular functions. And then there is the most famous room in the palace, that served as a passageway!

The Hall of Mirrors runs along the entire length of the central building. One wall contains a row of giant windows looking out over the gardens (almost 2,000 acres of manicured lawns, fountains and paths arranged in the formal garden style that André le Nôtre was known for), and the other wall is covered with 357 mirrors, which in the 17th century were as precious as diamonds, that catch the rising sun’s rays inside the palace and remind us yet again of Louis XIV’s power.

Portrait of Louix XIV, the Sun King

Though the room is over the top in its grandeur, it was mainly used as a passageway. After the king got up for the day, he proceeded through this mirrored hall to his private chapel, and as many courtiers as could fit would squeeze in, waiting for their chance to beg a favor of the king as he passed by them.

Hall of Mirrors

Little bears are just passing through, looking for cake 🙂

Hall of Mirrors

Ranked among the greatest architects and artists of the French Baroque – such as Louis Le Vau (1612-70), Andre Le Notre (1613-1700), and Charles Le Brun (1619-90) – Jules Hardouin Mansart was the grand-nephew of Francois Mansart (1598-1666), the father of French Classical architecture, who gave his name to the popular Mansard roof, a steeply inclined roof with a short flat peak. Jules Hardouin Mansart succeeded Le Vau as Royal Architect to King Louis XIV, whose taste for power and prestige he obediently reflected in the grandiose facades of the Palace of Versailles, as well as the first “French Windows” which he designed for the Grand Trianon at Versailles, and in the majestic dome of Les Invalides (1679-91). Indeed, Mansart’s work is regarded by many art scholars as the high point of Baroque architecture in France. Later appointed Premier Architect and Superintendant of Buildings, other important examples of his architecture include the elaborate Chateau of Marly (1679-86) – intended originally as the king’s country retreat from court life – and the Place Vendome (1698) in Paris.

Le dôme de l’hôtel des Invalides

Born in Paris, he studied under his famous relative Francois Mansart, from whom he also inherited a vast collection of plans and drawings. He was also taught by Liberal Bruant, designer of the royal hospital in Paris known as Les Invalides, which Mansart completed after Bruant’s death. At the age of 29, Mansart became official architect to Louis XIV, in which role he first extended the royal chateau of Saint-Germain-en-Laye, before turning to the redesign and extension of the Palace of Versailles. Here, during the period 1678-98, basing himself on the plans of his predecessor Le Vau, he designed the new Hall of Mirrors, the Grand Trianon, the Orangerie, as well as the new north and south wings. Together with Robert de Cotte, Mansart was also responsible for the Royal Chapel at Versailles.

Jules Hardouin-Mansart. Portrait by Hyacinthe Rigaud

The Hall of Mirrors, the most famous room in the Palace, was built to replace a large terrace designed by the architect Louis Le Vau, which opened onto the garden. The terrace originally stood between the King’s Apartments to the north and the Queen’s to the south, but was awkward and, above all, exposed to bad weather. Mansart replaced the terrace with a large gallery. Work started in 1678 and ended in 1684.

The Hall of Mirrors seen from the War Room

Following on from the victory over the three united powers, depicted in the War Room, the whole length of the Hall of Mirrors (73m) pays tribute to the political, economic and artistic success of France. Political successes are illustrated through the 30 painted compositions on the vaulted ceiling by Le Brun, which depict the glorious history of Louis XIV during the first 18 years of his reign, from 1661 to the peace treaties of Nijmegen. Military and diplomatic victories and reforms with a view to reorganising the kingdom are illustrated through allegories from Antiquity. Economic prosperity is revealed in the number and size of the 357 mirrors bedecking the 17 arches opposite the windows, demonstrating that the new French manufacture could rival the Venetian monopoly on mirror manufacturing. At the time such items were a great luxury. Artistic success is shown by the Rouge de Rance pilasters topped with capitals of gilded bronze based on a new design, which was referred to as “the French style” and was created by Le Brun upon the request of Colbert. The design incorporates the national emblems, with a fleur-de-lis topped by a royal sun between two Gallic roosters (the Latin word for rooster was gallus).

Hall of Mirrors

Hall of Mirrors

Courtiers and visitors crossed the Hall of Mirrors daily, and it also served as a place for waiting and meeting. It was used for ceremonies on rare occasions, for example when sovereigns wanted an extra dash of lavishness for entertainment (balls or games) held for royal weddings or diplomatic receptions. During the latter events, the throne was placed on a platform at the end of the hall near the Peace Room, whose arch was closed off. Rarely has the show of power reached such a level of ostentation. In 1685 the Doge of Genoa and the ambassadors of Siam (1686), Persia (1715) and the Ottoman Empire (1742) crossed the full length of the gallery, under the scrutiny of the French Court seated to either side on tiered seating, before they reached the king.

It was also here that the Treaty of Versailles was signed on 28 June 1919, ending the First World War.

The War Room

Hardouin-Mansart started building the War Room in 1678. The decoration, completed by Le Brun in 1686, pays tribute to the military victories which led to the peace treaties of Nijmegen. The walls are covered with marble panels decorated with six trophies and weapons in gilded bronze. The wall adjacent to the Apollo Room bears an oval stucco bas-relief depicting Louis XIV on horseback trampling his enemies. At the top of this masterpiece by Coysevox are two sculptures of Pheme, and two captives in chains huddle beneath it. Below, in the bas-relief in the fake fireplace, Clio, the muse of history, is recording the king’s great deeds for posterity.

War Room

In the centre of the cupola ceiling is a personified depiction of France, armed and sitting on a cloud and surrounded by Victories. Her shield is decorated with a portrait of Louis XIV. Her three defeated enemies are depicted in the arches: Germany kneeling down with an eagle; Spain making threats with a roaring lion; Holland overturned on another lion. The fourth arch depicts Bellona, the goddess of war, in a rage of fury between Rebellion and Contention.

The Peace Room

The Peace Room is symmetrical to the War Room and contains the same marble panel decoration and chased trophies of arms in gilded bronze. Here, however, Le Brun decorated the cupola and arches on the themes of the benefits of peace brought to Europe by France. From the beginning of Louis XIV’s reign this room was separated from the hall by a movable partition and was considered part of the Queen’s Apartment, constituting the final room after the Queen’s Chamber. During the reign of Louis XV, every Sunday Marie Leszczyńska gave concerts of religious or secular music, which played an important role in musical life in Versailles and which were continued by Marie-Antoinette during the subsequent reign. When required, the partition separating the room from the Hall of Mirrors was removed and the room formed part of the King’s State Apartment.

The Queen’s Apartments, which overlook the Midi Parterre, are a series of rooms whose layout is identical to that of the King’s State Apartments to the north. Queen Maria Theresa, Louis XIV’s wife, was the first person to live in these apartments, but she died not long after moving in, in 1683. The layout of the first floor of the Palace was perfectly symmetrical, with the north belonging to the king and the south to the queen. This was soon changed, however, by the king, who decided to set aside all the rooms around the Marble Courtyard for his new apartments. The queen’s space became limited to her State Apartments – which were modified by Marie Leszczyńska and later Marie-Antoinette – and to a few smaller rooms for more private use situated behind the official apartments, overlooking two inner courtyards.

The Bedchamber is the most important room in the apartments and is where the Queen spent most of her time. It was where she slept, and in the morning she received guests here during and after her toilette which, like the King’s getting-up ceremony, was a courtly affair controlled by strict etiquette.

The decoration in the room still reflects the three queens who once occupied it. The partitions on the ceiling date back to the reign of queen Maria-Theresa, while the greyscale painting by Boucher and the wood panelling were added for Marie Leszczyńska. These elements survived the reign of Marie-Antoinette, who replaced the furniture and fireplace and put up paintings of her mother Empress Maria-Theresa and her brother, Emperor Joseph II.

The jewellery cabinet commissioned to Schwerdfeger by Marie-Antoinette has been placed in its original position in the alcove to the left of the bed. Other pieces of furniture which were lost have been replaced by similar items, such as the sofa delivered for the Countess of Provence, the queen’s sister-in-law. The fabrics hanging on the bed and walls were re-woven in Lyon using the original patterns and the bed and balustrade have been remade using ancient documents.

The Queen’s Bedchamber

Traditionally, public meals at the Royal Table, taken by the king and the royal family, were held in the Queen’s Antechamber. This lavish ceremony attracted a large number of curious onlookers. Only the members of the royal family were allowed to dine, while privileged duchesses, princesses or those holding important positions sat in front them on stools, and the other ladies and people whose rank granted them entry or who were admitted by the ushers stood around them. Louis XIV adhered strictly to this ceremonial performance almost every evening, whereas Louis XV more often preferred private dinners and Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette only ate at the Royal Table once a week. One account at the time reported that “the King ate heartily, but the Queen didn’t even remove her gloves or unfold her serviette, which was a great mistake”. To brighten up what she considered to be a great chore, Marie-Antoinette requested that music was played during meals at the Royal Table, and a platform for musicians was installed in the room to this end.

The Royal Table Antechamber

Entry to the Queen’s Apartments from the Queen’s Staircase, also called the “Marble Staircase”, was controlled by the Guard Room, where 12 of the Queen’s Guards were on duty day and night. At Versailles only the king, queen and dauphin were allowed to have a personal guard composed of soldiers from the four elite companies of the King’s Guards. The large adjoining room, today called the “Coronation Room”, was assigned to them and served as a Guardhouse.

The Queen’s Guard Room is the only room in the Apartments in which the 17th-century decoration has been fully preserved, since the Queen never spent time here and there was therefore no need to modernise it. For this reason, it still contains the marble panelling characteristic of the State Apartments’ original condition, as well as the paintings which were brought here in 1680 from the old Jupiter Room, later replaced by the War Room.

The Queen’s Guard Room
The Coronation Room – in 1833 the room was devoted to the glory of Napoleon Bonaparte

In the centre of the Coronation Room stands the Column from the German Campaign, also called the “Austerlitz Column”, which Napoleon commissioned from the Sèvres Royal Porcelain Factory to commemorate his first imperial victories. Completed in 1807, and placed the following year in the State Apartments at the Palais des Tuileries, it is one of the masterpieces of Sèvres porcelain production during the Empire. It was created in collaboration with Brongniart (drawing), Bergeret (painting) and Thomire, Duterme and Co. (bronze mounting).

The Queen’s Staircase (Marble Staircase)

Finally, found the cakes!

Angelina at Versailles

Paris Delights

The second edition of Le Salon de la Patisserie was held in Paris in June this year and little bears went in search of cherry cakes.

Salon de la Patisserie
Le Salon de la Patisserie
Le Salon de la Patisserie
Fauchon delights at Le Salon de la Patisserie, 2019

No cherry cakes in sight or the cute car from the ad, but little bears found the cherry macaroons 🙂

Beary picnic from Le Salon de la Patisserie

Next stop, Galeries Lafayette Gourmet, now in its own building.

Galeries Lafayette Gourmet

Found the cherries 🙂

Cherries at Galeries Lafayette Gourmet

And the cakes…

Dalloyau at Galeries Lafayette Gourmet
L’Éclair de Génie at Galeries Lafayette Gourmet
Boulangerie Chez Meunier at Galeries Lafayette Gourmet
Supersized croissants at Boulangerie Chez Meunier, Galeries Lafayette Gourmet

It is a foodies heaven… Sprawling across two floors, this gourmet emporium is stocked with some of the finest brands, like Petrossian caviar; Iberian Pata Negra ham from Cinco Jotas; a slew of treats from Dalloyau; Fauchon; Comtesse du Barry; chocolates by Alain Ducasse, Valrhona and Jean-Paul Hévin; Maille mustards; Ferber preserves; Château d’Estoublon oils; teas by Kusmi, Dammann, and Mariage Frères. There’s also seafood, boulangerie, stalls brimming with fruits and veggies, and, of course, cheese!

Galeries Lafayette Gourmet
Galeries Lafayette Gourmet
Galeries Lafayette Gourmet
Galeries Lafayette Gourmet
Beary picnic from Lafayette Gourmet

Paris is a haven for chocolate lovers. Indeed, chocolate gets its own salon in November, Salon du Chocolate, which turns 25 this year! And for the first time, there will be a pastry area, for chocolate pastries, of course 🙂

The hot chocolate at Angelina’s is one of the best in Paris.

Angelina, 226 rue de Rivoli

The history behind this Parisian landmark began when the Rumpelmeyer family emmigrated from the then multinational realm of Austria-Hungry to settle in the Côte d’Azur region in the south of France. In the late 1800s, the Rumpelmeyers had nostalgic thoughts about the teahouses they left behind and decided to open their own in Nice. This proved to be a successful venture and they followed with teahouses in Monte Carlo and Antibes. Building on these successes, in 1903, the Rumpelmeyers opened the now-famous Parisian landmark Angelina.


The Dutch-born architect Edouard-Jean Niermans was commissioned to decorate the interior that remains unaltered to this day. Its entrance appears modern with delicate, bright, airy, unassuming touches that beautifully display the signature pasties and chocolates. The interior looks like a traditional teahouse — pleasant, understated yet refined and elegant. There are marble-topped tables and lots of mirrors that give the dining area a larger-than-life feeling and enhance its many decorative flourishes.


Originally, the teahouse on rue de Rivoli opened as Rumpelmeyer. However, in 1930, owner Antoine Rumpelmeyer changed the name to that of his daughter-in-law, Angelina.

Angelina serves breakfast, lunch and light dinner. Little bears decided to have breakfast.

Breakfast at Angelina

The signature pastry is Mont-Blanc, with a recipe created over a century ago by Angelina pastry Chefs and unchanged since. It is a crispy and dry French meringue under a smooth creamy dome of light whipped cream, covered by chestnut vermicelli. Its shape was apparently inspired by the tranding women hairstyle at the time: the sleek short square bob.

Breakfast at Angelina

Bonus, for the summer season, the Mont-Blanc also comes in a cherry version, the Mont-Blanc cerise griotte, combining chestnut cream with cherry. (Meringue, light whipped cream, cherry jelly, chestnut cream vermicelli with cherry.)

Mont-Blanc and Mont-Blanc cerise griotte

Next door to Angelina, at 228 Rue de Rivoli, is Le Meurice, where artists like Honoré de Balzac, Salvador Dali, and Andy Warhol used to hang out. Today, this iconic landmark continues to celebrate its heritage as a showcase for art and gastronomy. And unforgettable afternoon teas. With champagne, of course!

Afternoon tea at Le Dalí
Afternoon tea at Le Dalí

It would be easy for the savory offerings to be an afterthought, but the four different sandwiches almost stole the show.

The savory offerings – delicious finger sandwiches

As for the sweet offerings, they are crafted by head pastry chef, Cédric Grolet.

The mouth-watering and huge scones

Red apples, Grolet’s signature lifelike fruit treats, tarts topped with tricky tourbillon piping and a chocolate something that was no doubt delicious but it did not make a lasting impression.

Afternoon tea is hosted in Alain Ducasse’s two-Michelin-starred Restaurant Le Dalí, located just past the foyer of the Le Meurice. While it has all the grandeur one would expect of one of the French capital’s foremost five-star hotels, the Dalí-inspired interior, reimagined through the contemporary eye of famed French designer Philippe Starck, makes for a slightly more interesting atmosphere than your typical afternoon tea. Despite being a large square room, there’s plenty of banquette seating to create a cosier feel, and the lovely waiters are adept at not making you feel rushed, allowing you to comfortably nestle in for a couple of hours.

Le Dalí at Le Meurice

Afternoon tea at Le Dalí is so decadent that you won’t need dinner!

But if are you looking for a unique yet quintessential Parisian dining experience, one that offers an exceptionally interesting atmosphere and fascinating history along with classic traditional French cuisine, you should not miss the opportunity to enjoy a meal at Le Train Bleu.

In 1900, Paris mounted their 5th International Exposition, for which several magnificent structures were built, structures that continue to delight with their exuberant, even over-the-top, turn-of-the-20th-century optimism and panache: the Grand and Petit Palais; the exquisitely beautiful Pont Alexandre III; and the Gare de Lyon.

Le Train Bleu

The entrance to Le Train Bleu is inside the Gare de Lyon, at the top of steps leading up and away from the hustle-bustle of the main quais. To enter this restaurant is to step back in time and into another world: the extravagant décor is breathtaking.

Le Train Bleu

The fact that this restaurant was nearly closed in the early 1970s adds to the sense of privileged good fortune in being there. The story, as told by American food critic M.F.K. Fisher, is that she was informed, in hushed and mournful tones by the devoted and aggrieved waiters who served her one day, that the restaurant’s survival was threatened; she in turn passed the word along to her friend, New Yorker correspondent Janet Flanner, who spoke about it to the French Minister of Culture André Malraux, who saw to it that the place was designated as a national historic monument, securing its preservation. So it is that the restaurant survived and is still there to be enjoyed in all its belle époque glory.

Dinner at Le Train Bleu

If one must eat something other than dessert, then the exquisite cuisine at Le Train Bleu is an enjoyable experience 🙂 Which turns into an unforgettable experience when followed by dessert 🙂

Dinner at Le Train Bleu

Best Rum Baba we’ve ever had!

Lost in Translation

Every time little bears visit Paris, they go for a pilgrimage to the statue of Mihai Eminescu, at 14 Rue Jean de Beauvais, 75005 Paris, near the intersection with Rue des Écoles.

Frozen in bronze, eternally young, Mihai Eminescu (1850-1889), the national poet of Romania, is evoked by the sculptor Ion Vlad (1900-1992) with great sensitivity.

A post-modernist work, the sculpture was initiated by the neighboring Romanian Orthodox Church of Paris (Orthodox Church of the Archangel Saints) and the Romanian Cultural League. This patinated bronze made at the Fonderia artistica Versiliese in Pietrasanta, Italy, was inaugurated in Paris on June 15, 1989 on the occasion of the centenary of the death of the poet. (The shiny plaque at the front was added 20 years later in 2009.) Mihai Eminescu is presented in a lyrical pose, expressive face turned to the sky and inspiration, books under one arm, barefoot symbolizing his humility. More unusual items, his garment evokes a fractured armor or the shreds of poverty, bohemia, while a rope girdles his waist. The two long branches that frame the sculpture refer to the idea of ​​nature, a recurring motif in the work of Mihai Eminescu.

We especially love the inscription on the base – Viața e un bun pierdut, De n’o trăieşti cum ai fi vrut.

We’re not even going to attempt a poetic translation of this. It is actually a verse from another Romanian poet, George Coşbuc, and one of his celebrated poems, Decebal către popor.

One translation we found is “This life’s a stale and aimless jaunt / If you don’t live as is your wont!” In more direct terms, you’ve wasted your life if you haven’t lived it in a way through to yourself.

Mihai Eminescu provides a good example of the treachery of poetry translation. Most English readers know very little about Eminescu, and with good reason. Translations of Eminescu into English prove few in number and erratic in quality; what’s more, he’s typically dismissed in the west as a minor Romantic poet.

To Romanians he’s much more than that, much of which gets lost in translation. Romanian writers and critics are nearly uniform in their praise of Eminescu, and many go so far as to say he “invented” the Romanian language, at least the language of their poetry. His poems display a clear technical brilliance but are equally notable for their innovations, melding archaic language and traditional forms to create new models that proved profoundly influential to his peers and those who came after him.

These same features make Eminescu difficult to translate which leads to him being translated so infrequently, and as a result, to being little known or understood by western readers. This is not an isolated example, as many “difficult” poets suffer a similar fate.

To all Frenchmen, [the French language] is an idolised thing. To pay due reverence to it, to dwell on its clarity, its precision, its felicity, will set any Frenchman purring. To suggest that its vocabulary is very limited, has not even got words for “to stand” or for “right” or “wrong”, and requires two words to say “not” and eight words to say “what is that?” is a mortal insult. – Leopold Stennett Amery in My Political Life, 1953

Many people feel this way about their native language, especially if it is under attack (French) or has miraculously survived assaults in the past. This latter is the case with Romanian, the language of the colonists who kept alive in Dacia the speech of imperial Rome. Goths, Huns, Avars, Greeks and Turks all invaded Moldova, Wallachia and Transilvania, but the language somehow resisted all pressures and blandishments.

This resistance to outside pressure has been an important factor in keeping together Romanians as a people. Perhaps their isolation has helped to preserve their identity and their “Latinity”. As Professor Reto Bezolla points out in his preface to his The curly-horned cow: anthology of Swiss- Romansh literature (1971), “the Raeto-Romance speaking peoples, together with the Romanians, are the last to preserve in the names of their respective languages an indication of their Roman origins.” The other Romance languages have taken the names of what are now the nation-states fashioned from the subject peoples of the Empire.

But the Romanian language is not only “pure” in name. It has retained more of the “purity” of the spoken Roman than any other Romance language. There are words like “greu” (gravis, difficult) which have disappeared from Italian, Spanish and French, but are still used in contemporary Romanian. Of course, Romanian has accepted some Turkish words, during the centuries of Ottoman domination, some Russian and a few Magyar and Greek words, especially in the vocabularies of administration and commerce, but the acceptance has been very limited.

The Romanian language has accepted a lot more English words, especially after 1989, mostly in the area of sports terminology, food and drinks; trade and economics, banking; philosophy and religion; politics and law; but the same peculiarity holds true for the English words in Romanian, they haven’t altered the Romance character of the language.

The English language lacks inflections, it is often rigid in structure in spite of its large vocabulary. It is not possible to rearrange words to any great extent without losing the sense or creating archaic effects. Eminescu was much given to shuffling words in a sentence, moving subject, object and verb about with great dexterity.

The first translations of Eminescu’s poetry appeared in German during the poet’s lifetime, followed by translations in Italian, also during his lifetime. Translations into French, Hungarian, Russian, Swedish, Spanish, Yiddish, Slovak and Albanian all followed before the first translation into English in 1929.

It was in 1929 that suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst discovered Eminescu in some English versions of his poems done by I.O. Stefanovici. With some time on her hands after her recent victories in the war for women’s emancipation, and full of enthusiasm, she commissioned more translations from Stefanovici and reworked them into English versions of her own. She was in fact so enthusiastic about her discovery that she was able to communicate some of her excitement to George Bernard Shaw, who contributed a preface to the Poems of Mihail Eminescu Miss Pankhurst published in 1930 along with I.O. Stefanovici. Nicolae Iorga contributed an introduction to the book.

Alas for Eminescu, Miss Pankhurst’s political flair was more notable than her skill as a versifier and, mercifully, the book sank without a trace into the shallows of the secondhand bookshops and dustbins of various libraries around the world. Incredibly there was a reprint of the book in 1977.

Translators disagree just about every aspect of the art or craft. The debate has also reached the quality of subtitles in movies and TV (we do not like dubbing!). We subscribe to the view that a translation should affect the audience in the same way the original may be supposed to have affected the audience. When it comes to translating poems, the translation should be less about a literal rendering that gives us a bad poem in the receiving language, and more about a poetic translation that interprets the original without losing the sense, the sound or the feeling of it.

This is one of our favourite poems by Eminescu.

La Steaua, de Mihai Eminescu

La steaua care-a răsărit
E-o cale-atât de lungă,
Că mii de ani i-au trebuit
Luminii să ne-ajungă.

Poate de mult s-a stins în drum
În depărtări albastre,
Iar raza ei abia acum
Luci vederii noastre,

Icoana stelei ce-a murit
Încet pe cer se suie:
Era pe când nu s-a zărit,
Azi o vedem, şi nu e.

Tot astfel când al nostru dor
Pieri în noapte-adâncă,
Lumina stinsului amor
Ne urmăreşte încă.

We found two translations.

The Star, translation by Roy MacGregor-Hastie

It is a long way to the star
now appearing in the sky;
its light took many thousand years
to reach our eyes.

And, maybe, even, on its way
through space, blue, infinite,
it died, long before the light
could reach us.

One thing is sure, that the sky
is a great graveyard of stars
which once were, and died before
we knew that they existed.

And it is like this with our passion
when it dies deep in the night;
desire quenched still follows love, imprisoned in its orbit.

Despite this being a ‘professional translation’, Roy MacGregor-Hastie (1929–1994) was a British author, journalist, political commentator, poet, and translator from and into Romanian, and definitely not a literal rendering in terms of “Keep off the grass”, it is still a literal rendering in different ways and it is a definite miss.

By pure chance we came across this translation by A.Z. Foreman, which comes closer to the metaphors of the original. But neither translation comes close to the lyricism of the original.

For the Star, translation by A.Z. Foreman

It’s been a long way for that star
Now rising in our skies:
Its light has trekked a thousand years
To reach our earthborn eyes.

It may have long ago burned out
Amid the blue of space
Yet only now its ray has come
To set our sights ablaze.

That icon of a perished star
Climbs heaven’s canopy:
We who saw not the light that was
Now see what’s ceased to be.

It’s ever thus when our desires
Go, spent, into the night.
Our love still follows after us
With an extinguished light.