L'opéra de Rennes

Rennes Opera House

The smallest Opera House in France with a vast history

The Rennes Opera House is unusual for several reasons: its rounded façade fits the shape of the town hall opposite, its double staircase caused a scandal and its Breton fresco lifts gazes to the sky. Although it is known for being the smallest opera house in France, its programme of events places it squarely in the big leagues. Lift the curtain on the history of one of Rennes’ most beautiful monuments.

A rounded façade to echo the town hall

With the town hall on one side, the Opera House on the other, these two symbolic public buildings face each other to create one of the most stunning squares in Rennes. This is where everyone meets, where couples get together and break up, both on stage and in real life, as the wedding hall is on the opposite side, facing the theatre where great romantic dramas are played out. However, although the two façades appear to interlock, they do not date from the same era; the Opera House was built in 1836, one century after the town hall, which was designed by Jacques Gabriel between 1734 and 1743. Before the Opera House was built, there was a large empty space and this part of the square was nicknamed the “place aux arbres” while waiting for the construction of a private mansion for the governor, which never came to be.

After the Revolution of 1830, a new municipal team brought about major change. The city still did not have a theatre worthy of the name and shows were mainly performed on old jeu de paume or ‘real tennis’ courts. “In 1830, the bourgeoisie who came into power wanted to assert Rennes’ position as capital of the region and so commissioned the City Architect, Charles Millardet, to build a theatre” explains Gilles Brohan, head of the City of Art and History Department at the Tourist Office. “First of all, the plan was to build on the current Contour de la Motte. However, the location opposite the town hall, in the heart of Rennes, ended up becoming the obvious choice”.

Rennes Opera House
Rennes Opera House

An italian-style theatre in the centre of Rennes

The project did not win unanimous support. The architect Charles Millardet imagined an Italian-style theatre to play against the architecture of the town hall located opposite. “It was in the middle of a real wave of Romanticism and Antiquity is always fashionable” says Gilles Brohan. “The architect was inspired by the ancient Theatre of Marcellus in Rome, where the auditorium is more advanced than the city. At the time, the choice to take inspiration from an Italian-style theatre was not fully understood by the people of Rennes, who would have preferred, for reasons of national pride, a French-style theatre with a flat façade. Creating an Italian-style theatre with a rounded façade was a daring architectural commitment that allowed it to mould to the curve of the town hall”.

And now there is still today an unusual monument with its neo-classical façade topped with columns and capitals. It is a true temple of culture, dominated by 10 statues showing Apollo, the god of arts, surrounded by his muses.

Another novel feature of the architectural project is that it fits into a wider group that was very modern for the time, possibly even too much so. “Charles Millardet inserted the theatre into a larger construction programme with the buildings that surrounded the Opera House and crossing commercial galleries designed in the spirit of the covered Parisian passages of the era” explains Gilles Brohan. Unfortunately, this concept of the “covered gallery” never really worked and the businesses closed quickly as onlookers preferred to stroll along the centre of the Place, rather than under the arcades, which did, however, attract the attention of the most famous tourist of the 19th century: Stendhal himself.

Opera in Rennes : guided tours

When Stendhal praised the charm of the arcades of the Opera

In his “Memoirs of a Tourist”, Stendhal tells of his long journey leaving from Brittany, over the course of which he passed through many destinations. From Vannes to Switzerland and Italy via Normandy, few cities found favour in his eyes and, by way of comparison, his comments would make the biting opinions of tourists on TripAdvisor look like compliments. In this flood of criticism, Rennes was an exception. The author of The Red and The Black fell for the charms of the Breton capital while visiting in 1837, not long after the Opera House was inaugurated:“As I knew that Rennes had been completely destroyed by the fire of 1720, I had not expected to find anything of interest with regard to architecture. I was pleasantly surprised. The citizens of Rennes have just built a theatre and, more surprisingly, a sort of covered promenade (number one requirement in all cities that make any claim to conversation)”.

One of the two galleries is now a stage door entrance, but you can go to the other to eat at the famous Café Picca, which existed under another name when the Opera House was being built, before purchasing your ticket for a show. From under the arcades, the view out over the Place is not the same, so let yourself be guided by Stendhal’s steps.

Inside the Rennes Opera house

Magnificiently restored original decor

The interior of the Opera House is decorated in the style so unique to Italian theatre. In the past, people entered via the Place by passing through two rows of railings, which have now been replaced by windows to prevent air currents and preserve the vocal cords of the artists. In the two columns of the entry hall in the rounded part are the remains of the box offices where tickets were purchased. The stone still has the traces of small hands that came to get tickets to go into the theatre.

A theatre that was the site of another scandal in 1836. The architect did not really follow the rules of the art: to reach the stalls, you have to walk up 44 steps in a double staircase. This was completely unheard of and is now where those running the Rennes Urban Trail sweat while climbing this architectural prank for pleasure.

Devastated by fire in 1856

All of these shocking details ended up being forgotten, to the point that when the Opera House was devastated by a blaze in 1856 caused by a chimney fire in the foyer that was not extinguished properly, it was decided to rebuild it to be exactly as it was before. The only thing that was changed was the colour of the seating, which went from a very aristocratic blue and gold to the red/burgundy velvet that is still there after the Opera House’s last restoration in 1999.

In the meantime, other decorations took their place in the Opera House. In 1913, a fresco by J.-J. Lemordant that represented a Breton farandole leading to the sky was added to the rich decoration of the rounded façade by Jobbé-Duval (the creator of the outstanding wedding hall at the town hall opposite) with its putti (small, chubby angels that symbolise the arts of the opera). This is a unique ceiling that is well worth a look, especially for the details of the traditional outfits. Another excellent, but more exclusive, fresco is the salon of WW1 soldiers painted by Camille Godet (who also painted the fresco in the town hall), which remains reserved for VIP eyes. On the other hand, when in the foyer during the interval, take a look at the view of the square and the town hall and the walls carrying the names of fashionable composers, such as Massenet, Gounod, Mozart, Verdi, Léo Delibes, etc.

Rennes Opera fresco

Going to the theatre “to see and be seen”

The choice to create an Italian-style theatre in Rennes can also be explained by the social game that prevailed in a performance space. In the 19th century, the primary reason for going to the theatre was “to see and be seen” and respect for the artists was not really the norm. People talked and made comments and when the show and the actors were not on stage, the public also played its own role by giving its opinion on the acting and singing. The hall’s horseshoe shape with the boxes turned towards the public and the three balconies reflecting the social hierarchy made the opera a place for socialising where those from all backgrounds were stacked on top of and observing each other. On the third balcony, nicknamed the gods, students mixed with prostitutes, while in the first balcony and the boxes, the bourgeois played out other acts. On the ground floor facing the stage were the middle classes. Nowadays, the best seats for seeing a show are no longer the same and going to the opera is a major occasion that is affordable, depending on where you sit, and much less noisy. The hall has also kept its welcoming ambiance thanks to its very distinctive shape.

Seats of the Rennes opera house

Go behind the scenes at the Opera

The best way to discover the inside of the Opera House is, without a doubt, to go see a show. The schedule is very varied and the prices are accessible for all. The Opera House also offers regular guided tours to discover the building, its decor and go behind the scenes. Stride along the rounded face, go up on the stage and admire the boxes and the halls on the courtyard side and the garden side. 

During these visits, you can even go into the boxes and under the stage into the trap room, the below-ground level of the opera house that the public doesn’t see. A second hall is even located under the stage that is a rehearsal space named for Pierre Nougaro, the father of the singer Claude, who managed the Rennes Opera House from 1950 to 1960. There are plenty other stories about the Opera House and these visits are the perfect occasion to learn more about the building and its history. One last note is that visits to the Opera House are free on European Heritage Days every September.

  • Guided tours of the Opera (€4), information from the ticket office at the Opera
Guided tours of the Opera

Opera on-screen(s): a large-format show

Every two years, the Opera House is brought onto the big screens of around 30 cities in Brittany and the Pays-de-la-Loire region. In partnership with the Opera Houses in Nantes and Angers, a well-known opera is staged and relayed directly to more than 30 cities, into squares, theatres, cinemas, cafe terraces and the Gayeulles swimming pool in Rennes. At the Place de la mairie, the open-air show attracts almost 20,000 people who want to get a breath of fresh air and see an opera.

Wagner’s the flying dutchman for the 6th edition

The 6th edition of opera on-screen(s) will take place on 13 June 2019 with a performance of Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman, a three-act opera that will be performed this year at the Graslin theatre in Nantes after rehearsals and performances in Rennes and Angers. This will be a magical moment to experience this June, wherever you are in the west of France. In the run-up, a number of events are planned around this work by a young Wagner. Walks based on the topic of water will be offered by the Tourist Office and even the football Women’s World Cup (taking place in June) village and organisers will take part. 

Screening of the opera Carmen
Screening of the opera Carmen

An Opera House rooted in history and turning to the future

For those who think that the opera only attracts people of a certain age, the Rennes Opera House shows every day that this form of sung theatre can captivate all generations. The many events for young people and families make it possible to see this and discover opera in a new and fun way. The Rennes Opera House, where Matthieu Rietzler only recently took over at the helm, also uses a wide range of new technologies by collaborating with start-ups in the area. One example is the immersive 3D visit offered by Artefacto through a free virtual-reality app that has been dubbed “the keys to the Opera House”. Video demonstration

Lastly, did you know that the Rennes Opera House even travelled to the Consumer Electric Show (CES) in Las Vegas in 2018? This was in order to show how new technologies are used in opera, particularly with virtual-reality modelling of the hall by the ESI Group and the transmission of concerts in 3D audio. These technologies will be unveiled in June 2019 during the digital opera. The Rennes Opera House isn’t done surprising you yet!

The opera in virtual reality
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