Paris's Théâtre des Champs-Élysées Stays Cutting Edge

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On May 29, 1913, Igor Stravinsky’s avant-garde music for a ballet called Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring) shocked many members of the audience at Paris’s Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, provoking a notorious riot. Some of the Parisians claimed to be offended by the earthy sensuality and modern idiom of the choreography as well. On Thursday, WQXR's sister station WNYC presented "Culture Shock 1913," Sara Fishko's program about the revolutionary cultural events in the world in 1913, of which Le Sacre du Printemps is the most famous example. This worthy program is archived on

It is a good thing that the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, not yet two months old, was not destroyed during the protest. This Art Deco theater is, without a doubt, one of the most beautiful places in Paris to attend a performance. It was notable in that it was designed by a group of artists, including architects Henry Van de Velde and Auguste Perret, the painter and sculptor Antoine Bourdelle (who did the exterior bas-relief), the painter Maurice Denis (who did the auditorium’s dome), and René Lalique, famous for his work with crystal and glass.

There are paintings by Édouard Vuillard and Jacqueline Marval and many eye-pleasing flourishes in the building’s lobbies and auditorium. In 1953, it was one of the first 20th century edifices in Paris to be awarded landmarks status, becoming a monument historique not only for the notoriety that attended its beginnings but for its particular beauty,

There has been eclectic programming from the very start. Gabriel Astruc, its first director, said the hall’s mission was to host performing artists of every type from all over the world as well as showcasing the best of French culture, with an emphasis on the contemporary. The first performance was on April 2, 1913, and included five of the foremost French composers conducting their own works: Claude Debussy (Prélude to the Afternoon of the Faun), Paul Dukas (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice), Gabriel Fauré (The Birth of Venus), Vincent d'Indy (Le camp from Wallenstein), and the grand old Camille Saint-Saëns (Phaeton and excerpts from La lyre et la harpe).

The first opera came the next day: Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini, a work I am always glad to hear. The Andrei Serban production a few years back at the Met was strongly criticized but I think that it could be viable with just a few minor tweaks (including eliminating the figure of Berlioz wandering around the stage). The music is too good to not have a regular hearing.

The Théâtre des Champs-Élysées’s first season famously had a strong Russian accent because impresario Serge Diaghelev received the huge sum of 25,000 francs from Astruc to bring many dancers of the Ballet Russes, plus Russian musicians and singers to Paris. While Stravinsky’s scandalous evening (with dancer Vaclav Nijinsky performing) consecrated the theater’s fame, it is important to note that there were many other memorable nights, including the great bass Feodor Chalipin singing Boris Godunov and Dosifei in Khovanschina

I could use all of the space allotted to me to list every great conductor, orchestra, singer, dancer and actor who has appeared at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in the nearly hundred years since. Almost all of the legendary figures in the classical performing arts set foot on the stage at some point. The hall does not have quite the mythical status of Carnegie Hall, that musical mecca, but this is in part because it was never threatened with demolition to then be replaced by a skyscraper. I still pinch myself with wonderment when attending Carnegie Hall and realize that it might not have been a crucial part of my cultural formation. Unthinkable!

The Théâtre des Champs-Élysées differs from Carnegie Hall in that it has always been an important presenter of dance, starting with the Ballet Russes, then Isadora Duncan and most of the important ballet and modern dance companies since then. It is where Parisians saw La Revue Nègre de Joséphine Baker. 

More than Carnegie Hall, it is a remarkable place for opera lovers. In five days last March I was able to attend Stravinsky’s Les Noces and Oedipus Rex (conducted by Valery Gergiev with the latter narrated splendidly by Gerard Depardieu); Parsifal; Handel’s Theodora; and Tristan und Isolde. These were in concert or semi-staged form but there are also at least three full productions annually. It is possible in some years to hear a dozen or more operas at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées as part of its rich and diverse calendar of programming. This is why, when its operatic offerings are combined with those of the two venues of Opéra National de Paris (the Garnier and the Bastille), plus the Théâtre de Chatelet, the Opéra Comique and other presenters, a case can be made for Paris being the opera capital of the world. Other cities (Milan, Vienna, London, and New York) have their great iconic opera houses but fewer other places where opera performances of high quality and variety can be encountered.

Despite its name, the theater is on the Avenue Montaigne in one of the most chic parts of Paris. Step out of its doors and look left to see the Eiffel Tower looming in the near distance. The Avenue Montaigne is home to top boutiques, and their vitrines by night  emit a glow onto the street even though the shoppers have gone. Nearby are a few restaurants for dining, including platters of oysters for before or after the performance.

The Théâtre des Champs-Élysées is the setting for a few films in which its beauty adds to  the allure of the movie. Coco Chanel was in the audience on the infamous night of Le Sacre du Printemps and, seven years later, she began an unusual relationship with Stravinsky as she hosted his wife and four children in her home for an extended period while engaging in a love affair with the composer. This is depicted in Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky, a 2009 film directed by Jan Kounen with Mads Mikkelsen as Stravinsky and Anna Mouglalis as Chanel.

I found the 2006 movie Fauteuils d’Orchestre, directed by Danièle Thompson, more engaging. Its title in the United States and English-speaking Canada was Avenue Montaigne while in Britain and Australia it was Orchestra Seats. The film is a contemporary fable with interlocking stories of people of different classes, viewpoints and needs whose paths cross in the theater and in nearby art galleries and restaurants. It does not set out to make grand statements and yet is very telling and humane in depicting how people’s hopes and desires are often dashed but how other unexpected pleasures make life rewarding.

Since 1934, the resident orchestra at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées has been the Orchestre National de France. It presents a full symphonic season (including many radio broadcasts) and performs some, though hardly all, of the opera and ballet programs. Watch a dance performance of Le Sacre du Printemps from 2002, with the Orchestre National de France conducted by Pierre Boulez. The music, all these years on, still has the power to shock and startle the engaged listener. 

Photos 2 & 3 by Fred Plotkin/WQXR