Twenty-Four Shades of Marble

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Paris is a city of inescapable beauty, and the Palais Garnier is no exception. Located in one of the most prestigious arrondissements in the city, the rich history of the famous landmark – from its unique design team to the underground lake to being the inspiration for The Phantom of the Opera – is almost as impressive as its design.

During the Second Empire, Emperor Napoléon III, inspired by the Industrial Revolution he had witnessed in UK, enlisted the skills of the famous urban planner Baron Haussmann and ordered the complete modernisation of Paris, blessing Parisians and visitors alike with the stunning architecture for which the city is now famous. One of the main projects came in the form of Académie Nationale de Musique: Théâtre de l’Opéra, or Palais Garnier, as it is called today. Like many modern-day architectural undertakings, the design of the Palais Garnier was subject to a public competition, and the winner Charles Garnier set Paris alight with controversy due to his humble status and his lack of portfolio.

On seeing the façade of the Palais Garnier, it is hard to believe that one could be more awed by anything else, but then you enter and set sight on The Grand Staircase. Using 24 shades of marble, Garnier applied the techniques and styles he learnt whilst studying in Italy, giving the splendid interior a neoclassical feel. The truly Grand Staircase and the interweaving passages serve as a symbol of Garnier’s talents. These beautifully decorated areas doubled as a place of mingling for the socialites of this era, as the Grand Foyer was reserved solely for men; while they conducted business and smoked, the ladies would prance around in their finest attire.

The ornate Grand Foyer is simply breathtaking and similar to a gallery one would find in a classical château. Unsurprisingly, comparisons with Château de Versailles are frequently made. Taking inspiration from Greek mythology, the intricate sculptures and extravagant paintings include goddesses flaunting their semi-nude figures. A bust of the building’s namesake and his wife, Louise, lie at opposite ends of the magnificent Grand Foyer, almost as though admiring the work of their team. Garnier merged various contradictory styles – North African style mosaics, Greek Mythology, Neo-Baroque – to design a building unmissable to those with a love of architecture, music and culture. Despite these conflicting design aspects, each section flows into the next seamlessly.

With its red and gold tones, 1,900 seats cloaked in velvet and lit by a spectacular eight-tonne crystal chandelier, the auditorium of five different levels continues to reflect Mr Garnier’s Italian influences. The dome ceiling was repainted by Marc Chagall in 1964. Though Chagall is one of France’s most revered artists, the controversy of his ceiling painting continues today, as the art-deco vibe and colour scheme continue to set tongues wagging due to the clash in style.

In accordance with Haussmann’s planning and Napoléon III’s wishes for a direct route to his home at the Louvre in order to avoid assassination attempts, Avenue de l’Opéra was constructed. As if to highlight the masterpiece that is Palais Garnier, Avenue de l’Opéra is the only avenue in Paris without trees, further ensuring an unobstructed view.

The Palais Garnier has undergone several different stages of renovation over the years in an attempt to maintain its splendour. Throughout that time, fashion has obviously changed. When the Palais Garnier was inaugurated in 1875, couples would arrive decked out in all their glory. Ladies of this era would wear tight, ruffled corsets and full, elaborate skirts supported by a bustle. Sitting down was something of an art, and a lady-in-waiting was a prerequisite for anybody sporting such attire. The upper class gentlemen of the 1870s would no doubt sport a dark tail coat and trousers, worn with a white bowtie and a shirt with a winged collar all while puffing on a pipe and ogling the dancers.

Sadly, the general consensus today is that as the opera has become so accessible and no longer ‘an occasion’, people do not need to make a point of dressing up. It should be said that one can never be overdressed for such a place; clothing should be matched appropriately to the opera’s decorum and prestige. The modern man should always wear a tailored dark-coloured suit, unless black tie is specified. Richard James, hailing from Savile Row, is a brand to watch. For today’s cultured and stylish woman, a timelessly elegant Preen cocktail dress styed up with a luxe Hermès bracelet, a pair of Pierre Hardy heels and a Jason Wu clutch perfectly match the occasion.

The irony here is that, despite all his efforts and investments, Napoléon III never got to see the opera in all its glory, let alone watch a production at this jewel of Parisian architecture, as he died in exile in the UK two years before its completion.

Palais Garnier, Place de l’Opéra, 75009 Paris, France, Tel. +33 1 53 79 37 47. Website.

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