Planet Opera: Why Bordeaux is More Than The Grand Cru

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BORDEAUX, FRANCE -- The wine harvest began early in Bordeaux this year. Some growers started picking as early as September 9 and, by September 12, most wineries had begun to gather their crop, a full two weeks ahead of normal. An unusually hot and dry May and June accelerated growth of the grapes, despite the arrival of rain and cooler conditions in July and August.

Most of the grape pickers are itinerant workers, often from Spain or Portugal, and many of them Gypsies. If Carmen and her friends were around today, perhaps they would not be making cigarettes in Seville but working in agriculture throughout the European Union. In the Bordeaux zone here in southwestern France, many students start school later than elsewhere so they can participate in the grape harvest. Depending on the year, the Bordeaux wine zone produces between 700 million and 800 million bottles of wine, 90 percent of it reds made from blends of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc grapes.

Say “Bordeaux” to most people and it is synonymous with the gold standard of wine, even if producers from Burgundy, Piedmont, Tuscany and the Napa Valley might beg to differ. But Bordeaux is also the cozily elegant city on the Garonne River that helped the wine produced nearby become an icon and benefitted from its popularity. Its negociants (merchants and exporters) used its position on the Atlantic Ocean to ship wine to Great Britain (which calls the wine Claret), the Netherlands (which exported it to the UK with different labels when England and France were at war), to North America (Thomas Jefferson was among the first clients) and now to Asia, especially China. 

The red wines from Médoc, Saint-Émilion, Pauillac, Péssac-Leognan, Margaux, Pomerol and the other districts built this gorgeous city and its stunning opera house. In the 18th century, when much of Paris was still a shabby place full of decaying medieval buildings, Bordeaux was gloriously beautiful. More than five thousand buildings were constructed of the same sandstone that forms the natural caves used to store wine in Saint-Émilion since the 8th Century. When the sun rises and sets, the buildings practically glow. The architecture of Bordeaux is typically Palladian or neo-Classical in style, with columns, capitals and other flourishes that evoke the grandeur of antiquity. The urbanistic achievement of 18th century Bordeaux has earned the city a designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site. 

During a stay in Bordeaux, a phrase kept ringing in my ears whose origin I had forgotten. Said in a strong New York accent: “Oi gawt stoil, oi dewit bawdalaze,” or “I got style, I do it Bordelaise.” I first heard it 46 years as a kid attending Funny Girl on Broadway. It came from the brilliant scene in which Nicky Arnstein seduces Fanny Brice. Here it is from the film, marvelously directed by William Wyler and played by Omar Sharif and Barbra Streisand, who tamps down her accent so she can be understood by a movie audience:

The Heart of Operatic Bordeaux

Perhaps the most famous of Bordeaux’s 18th Century buildings is the Grand Théâtre on the Place de la Comédie. It is usually mentioned first on itineraries and is an unmistakable landmark and point of reference for anyone coming to town. In this regard, Bordeaux is like Vienna and Milan, whose opera houses are the epicenter of urban life despite the many other attractions one could think of.

I had the chance to visit the theater and observe life around the building at all hours of the day and night. Onstage I saw technical work being done on the Madama Butterfly production that opens the season on Thursday. Though the auditorium was darkened, there was enough light from the stage for me to notice graceful balconies on the intimate horseshoe design of the auditorium. I doubt there are more than one thousand seats. Even in the dark, there was that radiant glow I felt throughout the city -- even before having a sip of wine.

The Grand Théâtre opened in April 1780, almost a full century before Paris’s Opéra Garnier. The large mercantile class could support such a theater while Paris’s population was a large group of miserables marginalized from the splendor known to royals and nobles. Bordeaux’s theater, designed by Victor Louis to look like a temple of the arts, has offered a generous mix of opera, recitals, concerts, dance and plays ever since. 

The coming season will have ten operas including classics by Mozart, Gluck, Verdi, Puccini and Janacek. Philip Glass’s 1996 version of Cocteau’s Les Enfants Terribles in November will be of interest. I do not know Dardanus, by Rameau, so a new opera (even one three centuries old) is enticing. On paper, the highlight of the season is Handel’s Alcina, with rising South African soprano Elza van den Heever in the title role and fine young American singers Anna Christy (Morgana), Isabel Leonard (Ruggiero) and Alek Shrader (Oronte).

There are many superb opera companies, even in France and Italy, whose food offerings are unremarkable. In my experience, the opera houses in Stockholm and Madrid have the best restaurants and Munich’s Bavarian State Opera’s more casual selection nonetheless is just right in flavor and weight to get through a long Wagnerian opera. Bordeaux, like Stockholm, has a restaurant open even to those not attending performances. As such, the theater is a destination day and night. In the mind of the public, the Grand Théâtre is a desirable place to meet for breakfast, lunch, an afternoon repast, or a meal before, during or after performances. Its Cafe Opera (right) has an ideal formula, with menus at fair prices served at outdoor tables on the square or in its elegant dining room.

Three-course set menus named for operas include the Rigoletto lunch (€19.50) and Carmen (€26.50) and Tosca (€33) suppers. There is a lighter pre-performance Traviata menu as well as a Sunday Madama Butterfly brunch (€22 or €32). The food selections do not necessarily reflect the operas for which they are named, but mostly offer excellent preparations of ingredients sourced from nearby land and waters. Simpler meals can also be had á la carte. Needless to say, there is world-class wine by the glass or bottle to go with the food. It is worth noting that Verdi, the gastronome, was certainly partisan for Italy when it came to food but his preferred wine was Bordeaux.

The embracing warmth of Bordeaux is felt in many ways. People smile more here than any place I have been in France or, for that matter, much of Europe. Modern streetcars purr through the city, making none of the noise of public transport in the USA. One can hear the leaves rustle on carefully tended plane trees. The main shopping street, Rue Sainte-Catherine, is three-quarters of a mile of pedestrian traffic, with the chicest shops (and an Apple store) just by the Grand Théâtre. The riverfront, a couple of streets away, is full of people engaged in recreational activities.

A Magical Elixir

Wine, much of it probably from Bordeaux, is consumed in many operas, but perhaps no work is more closely associated with this area’s wines than Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore. In fact, Bordeaux wine is the elixir of love that the cunning Dr. Dulcamara passes off to the bumpkins in the mountain town he visits. Ildebrando d’Arcangelo sings “Udite, udite o rustici!"

Here he sings the delightful Barcarole from the opera, with Anna Netrebko as Norina:

The character who consumes the elixir, with sad and happy results, is Nemorino. Here is a splendidly inspired Luciano Pavarotti singing “Una furtiva lagrima”:

In vino veritas, indeed.