From the theatre of the Lords of Maccarani to the fire of 1881
A little wooden theatre in 1776
The Marchioness Alli-Maccarani acquired permission to turn her former residence into a theatre from Amadeus III, King of Sardinia, under which jurisdiction of the County of Nice fell. Thus the little Théâtre Maccarani, named after its owners, was built at the site of the present-day opera house in the 18th century.
Built entirely from wood in 1776, the northern façade looked out over the city while its southern façade gave out onto the ramparts of the Quai du Midi, today's Quai des États-Unis.
Work begins on a new opera house in 1826
In 1826, the City of Nice bought the theatre upon the recommendations of King Charles Felix, and decided to demolish it to build a large opera house in the Italian style, on the site of the former theatre.
The city's official architect Brunati worked with Turin architect Perotti, designing a building with spacious stalls and no seating, in accordance with the tradition of the times, featuring four levels of tiered seating for wealthy members of the public and the royal box supported by two golden caryatids.
The stage was veiled by a huge curtain on which the painter Biscarra created a giant fresco depicting the exploits of Nice heroine Catherine Ségurane. The backdrop was turned to face the south as it is today, and opened out onto a sweeping bay window overlooking the sea. The view of the sea was walled over in 1866, and a gigantic sundial replaced it on the Quai du Midi side. The opera house became the municipal theatre in 1870.
1881: drama unfolds
On Wednesday 23 March 1881, during the opening of Lucia de Lammermoor, horror erupted in a matter of minutes. A devastating fire, seemingly triggered by a gas leak on the stage ramp, devoured the entire theatre.
A new theatre born in 1885
On 7 November 1882, the town council decided to rebuild a new theatre at the site of the former theatre, and asked François Aune to draw up plans.
Born in Nice in 1814, François Aune studied geometry in Turin before being appointed the City's architect. The plans he drafted for the new opera house were approved by Charles Garnier, Inspector for Civil Construction at the time.
François Aune, studying under Gustave Eiffel, built an outer shell using traditional stone-masonry comprised of stone, brick and limewash, within which he erected a structure of metallic girders.
The design of the room and stage is a compromise between Nice tradition and the encroaching influence of francophiles and the aesthetic standards of a cosmopolitan audience.
These various trends were amalgamated by an architect who had trained in the Turin school, and who was accused by some of favouring a Parisian 'mongrelism'. From the very start, the specifications indicated that the room would be decorated in 'the Italian style'. Thus, the theatre boxes were designed as veritable little private salons, opening on to the theatre, lending it the overall appearance of a room scattered with multiple bay windows.
Each audience member was permitted to take part in the performance, based on a philosophy that prioritised the concept of individual autonomy without compromising collective comfort.
The new theatre boasted spectacular décor, with a ceiling painted by Emmanuel Costa, depicting the chariot of the Sun.
The sculptures were created by Raimondi and depict the Muses: Euterpe (music), Melpomene (tragedy), Thalia (comedy) and Terpsichore (dance).
In 1902, the municipal theatre was given the name it still bears today: the Opéra de Nice.
The Théâtre de l'Opéra today
A few elements have changed in comparison to the original building.
The main entrance that once opened onto a sweeping staircase incorporated into the theatre's rotunda has since been transferred to Rue Saint-François-de-Paule.
Similarly, the proscenium has been reduced in size, the grand chandelier removed before being reinstated in 1960 (it features 600 bulbs), the stalls expanded and the paintings in the entrance replaced by large mirrors.
The stage house was entirely renovated and modernised in 1979. Today, thanks to its mobile platform, the orchestra pit allows for a significant increase in the number of musicians it can accommodate for concerts, thus allowing for a much larger repertoire.
The theatre was listed as an historic monument in 1993.
Significant interior and exterior renovation works then began. The first phase involved improving safety and security, the second involved renovating the façades and cladding, and the last involved interior renovation works. The building was restored to its full architectural glory in 2000.
Une grande scène lyrique internationale
Au 19e siècle, Nice devint un lieu de séjour hivernal pour l'aristocratie européenne et son Opéra bénéficia pleinement de cet engouement.
Les grands chanteurs et les grands compositeurs se succédèrent donc sur cette scène. Dans le centre-ville, le quartier des musiciens se souvient de leurs noms : Offenbach, Meyerbeer, Halévy, Berlioz, ou encore Verdi dont la création française de la « Force du destin » eut lieu à Nice en 1873. Tous ces compositeurs séjournèrent plus ou moins longtemps, entraînant dans leur sillage la présence de « monstres sacrés » du chant comme la soprano Adelina Patti ou le ténor Enrico Tamagno.
A la suite d'un incendie, le 23 mars 1881, lors d'une représentation de Lucia di Lamermoor, l'Opéra de Nice fut reconstruit par François Aune, disciple de Charles Garnier – l'architecte de l'Opéra de Paris. La vie lyrique niçoise reprit de plus belle avec des créations comme Marie-Madeleine de Massenet ( 1903), avec les premières françaises d'ouvrages comme Les Troyens de Berlioz (1891), La Gioconda de Ponchielli (1886), « Eugène Onéguine » de Tchaïkovsky, l' « Or du Rhin » de Wagner (1902), « Ekaterina Ismaïova » de Chostakovitch, ou encore la création mondiale de l' « Elégie pour de jeunes amants » de Henze (1965).
Les divas se sont succédé : Nelly Melba, Felia Litvine, Emma Calvé, Mado Robin, Régine Crespin, Barbara Hendricks et Montserrat Caballé dont le nom est d’ailleurs donné au Foyer de l'Opéra de Nice. Des chanteurs légendaires ont fait entendre leurs vocalises : José Luccioni, Cezare Vezzani, Georges Thill, Mario del Monaco, Carlo Bergonzi, Luciano Pavarotti, Franco Corelli, Ruggiero Raimondi, Placido Domingo ou encore Jonas Kaufmann.
La scène de l'Opéra de Nice a également accueilli des concerts prestigieux avec des solistes comme les pianistes Marguerite Long, Arthur Rubinstein, Wilhelm Kempff, Krystian Zimerman ; les violonistes Jacques Thibaud, Zino Francescatti, Yehudi Menuhin ; les chefs d'orchestre Georges Enesco, Jasha Horenstein, Paul Paray, Igor Markevitch, Eugen Jochum, Wolfgang Sawallich, etc.