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The Grand Théâtre, Bordeaux

The Grand Théâtre, Bordeaux

There’s nothing quite like the sparkle of city lights to shake off the winter blues. Nola d’Enis takes this opportunity to explore the Grand Théâtre de Bordeaux…


There’s much more to modern day Bordeaux than wine. The historic city was awarded UNESCO World Heritage status in 2007, by which time it had already shaken off, once and for all, the grimy image of what wine critic Robert Parker had once described as ‘the rotten abandoned buildings’ and revealed their full beauty.

There’s something magical about the place; the wide, curving Garonne river is flanked by newly-renovated quays while the formerly blackened city now flaunts its architectural richesse of pale limestone facades restored to their glowing splendour. Wine has much to do with it, of course – many of the buildings date back to ‘the Golden Age’ in the 18th century, when the city prospered from its bustling port which was busy handling wine, exotic spices and, somewhat less gloriously, had a significant slave trade.

At the heart of Bordeaux’s 18th century quarter lies the Grand Théâtre - the oldest wooden-framed opera house in Europe and the only one not to have been burnt (the pompiers are ever-vigilant and present at every performance) or rebuilt. A stunning monument to the performing arts, it dominates the Place de la Comédie. On one side are views down to the river while on the other lies the Grand Hôtel – absolutely the place to stay (budget permitting) if you wish to pop over and watch a performance in your finery without negotiating the tram system or finding a parking place.

The Grand Théâtre itself was commissioned by the Duc de Richelieu, who asked architect Victor Louis (renowned for the galleries of the Palais Royal in Paris and a fellow freemason) to design an opera house befitting a vibrant, prosperous city. He specified a ‘Temple of Art and Light’ to rival those in Paris, to replace the original opera house burnt down in 1755. Building work started in 1773 and took nearly a decade to complete.

The concert hall was built by Charles Burguet between 1865 and 1870 and featured blue and gold painted wooden panelling beneath some 1800m2 of ceilings decorated with oil-painted canvases. Here and there in the auditorium there are still secret compartments where you can open tiny hidden doors to reveal the original paintwork.

Structurally, the building is just as stunning, with sweeping chiaroscuro staircases, plunging audiences from darkness into light, and a timber frame built using techniques found in shipbuilding. The work was further complicated by the presence of Gallo-Roman foundations and by layers of mud washed up over the centuries from the nearby Garonne (rumour has it that a tributary still runs under the building). Added to this were various political rumblings considered sufficiently grave to prevent the Duke himself from attending the opening night.

The great building was finally inaugurated in 1780 and the design remains unchanged today. Stylistic features include a neo-Classical facade with twelve Corinthian columns (which are lit majestically with coloured lights at Christmas) upon which stand statues representing nine Muses and three Goddesses: Juno, Venus and Minerva. In a fit of pique, the 19th century French writer Stendhal described the arrangement as “Twelve Corinthian columns, skinny and malplaced, holding up a huge slab which is overloaded with twelve ridiculous statues. If one stands back a bit, one can see the ugly roof, huge and heavy”.

Despite (or perhaps because of) Stendhal’s harsh criticism, the Grand Théâtre proved hugely popular and has never closed its doors, running performances during both World Wars and during the Occupation. In 1871, the theatre was briefly also home to the National Assembly of the French Parliament. The building was restored in 1991 and once more displays its original colour scheme of blue and gold previously hidden behind layers of soot, testimony to the decades of candle-lit performances (and the reason so many opera houses failed to survive the centuries).

Today the building, which holds up to 1,114 people, is home to both the Opéra National de Bordeaux and the Ballet National de Bordeaux, national status having been acquired in 2002. The Opéra National de Bordeaux features 118 musicians from the Bordeaux Aquitaine National Orchestra, 38 dancers from the Ballet de l’Opéra National de Bordeaux, plus 40 choir singers and numerous guest artists. Over 200 Opéra National performances are held annually at the Grand Théâtre as well as in Aquitaine and throughout France and abroad.

However, the other greatest changes to the Grand Théâtre have been in its Direction. In 1996 Parisian Thierry Fouquet took over management of the opera house and it has since gone from strength to strength, gaining in popularity as the programmes widened and appealed to different audiences. One of the reasons for this is a firm policy of limiting operettas and opening up to a wider audience, with a new repertoire featuring major works, international performers and also showcasing French premiere compositions. It has clearly worked, and today there is something at the Grand Théâtre for everyone, young and old, aficionado or cognoscenti – or the merely curious.

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M Fouquet has also engineered a series of programmes which allow for all tastes and budgets, from lunchtime concerts to shortened afternoon performances of major works for schoolchildren, along with resoundingly successful performances of original pieces such as Les Rois by Phillippe Fénelon. M Fouquet is also very keen on supporting young up-and-coming performers and showcasing original works, regularly sending scouts abroad to discover new talents. A new partner venue - L’Auditorium - is due to open this year, replacing the Palais des Sports which currently hosts choral events. Jordi Savall is the current artist in residence. Placido Domingo,

Cecilia Bartoli and Natalie Dessay have all performed at the Grand Théâtre, as have many of the stars of the last century, including Viardot, and Petipa. Recent performances have included Macbeth, Les Enfants Terribles and a very popular Gershwin interpretation, Gershwin Tempo.

The current programme features operas by Rossini, Purcell, Offenbach and Mozart’s Magic Flute. Ballets include Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty and Coppélia. For younger audiences there were January performances of Chat Perché, an opera which opened in Paris in 2011 and featuring a duck which learns geography, a pig on a diet and a vain peacock! In February there is a series of concerts at the new auditorium aimed at families with children of 8 years and older, as well as a full programme of dance, opera and concerts featuring artists from all over the world.

The cherry on the cake is perhaps the Café Opéra Restaurant, owned and run by Scotsman Colum Crichton-Stuart who owns several Bordeaux restaurants including the very popular L’Orangerie in the Jardin Public. As befits such a stunning setting, the food is as good as the décor.





When visiting Bordeaux it pays to consider your travel options in advance. It’s a straightforward drive down the RN10, which skirts the city, and has clearly signed exits. However, if you’d prefer to avoid the cut-and-thrust of peak-time trunk route traffic, and you have the flexibility to try the rail option, you’ll find it a surprisingly civilised alternative. Look online for discounted travel concessions and promotional offers: (which now has an English-language option).

The city’s state-of-the-art tramway system is also well worth getting to know - the nearest tram stop is ‘Grand Théâtre’ on Ligne B. To help you weigh up the options you’ll find maps, transport information and much more on:

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You’ll discover a range of menus to suit varied budgets and tastes with, unusually for Bordeaux, several vegetarian options
including a goat’s cheese lasagne, vegetable risotto and roast Mont d’Or. There’s also a special pre-performance menu between 6.30 and 7.30pm, and pre-ordered Champagne is served during the interval (reserve online at You can book this until 7.30pm on the night of the performance.



Programmes and booking facilities are available on Prices range from under 10€ to around 60€. Reductions are available for students, large families, seniors and the unwaged. Reduced-price parking is also available when booking a ticket to an event. Guided tours are available every Wednesday and Saturday at 2.30pm, 4pm and 5.30pm.