In summer, throughout the first half of the 20th century, the resort of Vichy attracted people from all over the world. Renowned for its therapies, the thermal baths become a pretext for pleasure seeking and treatment gave way to holidaying. The Grand Casino occupied pride of place at the center of several attractions. The games are very popular and there is a program of theater, shows and galas every day. The "Reine des villes d’eaux" (Queen of the spa towns) earns the title of Summer Music Capital . It is impossible do justice, in just a few lines, to the Vichy Theater's exhaustive program, but the description of a few of its grand events will give an idea!
An unofficial inauguration
" The trumpets of Aïda will sound in the vast hall of the Vichy Casino theater. It is the first time this opera will be performed in our resort since it left Cairo thirty years ago. It has since traveled around Europe, and even played a few shows across the pond before arriving in Paris ," Journal de Vichy, June 2, 1901.
"The new Vichy Theater opens on May 15, 1901 with a series of comedies, but it is on June 2 that the audience watches a masterful premiere. It is an unofficial inauguration, since the hall will not be inaugurated officially until May 31, 1903, but from now on it can put on brilliant shows that, like Verdi's Aïda, require extraordinary use of staging and figuration as well as a framework of large and magnificent sets ," Journal de Vichy, June 4, 1901. The leading roles are played by artists from the Paris Opera, the orchestra, conducted by Auguste Amalou, has 80 musicians, and the sets are designed by Louis Contessa, chief designer of the Monte-Carlo Theater.
Among the brilliant summer performances, some national creations are shown in Vichy. On August 17, 1902 Fedora, an opera in three acts, is given its debut French performance, in the presence of the composer Umberto Giordano. The work, premiered in Milan on November 17, 1898, revealed, among others, the tenor Caruso. The libretto by Arturo Colautti, based on the eponymous drama by Victorien Sardou, written for Sarah Bernhardt, is performed for the first time in Paris, at the Théâtre du Vaudeville, on December 12, 1882.
The opera Thérèse by Jules Massenet premiers on February 7, 1907 at the Monte-Carlo Opera. The French premiere is performed at the Théâtre du Grand Casino (The Grand Casino Theater) in Vichy on July 4 of the same year with the creative artists and in the presence of the composer, who directed the rehearsals.
Based on the eponymous poem by Lord Byron, The Giaour, a middle-eastern drama by Chekri-Ganem and Adrien Peytel, with music by Marc Delmas, premieres in Vichy on July 21, 1928. For the occasion, artistic director Henry Villefranck brings together first-class artists Marise Beaujon, from the Opéra and René Maison, from the Opéra-Comique to play the leading roles. The Orchestra is conducted by Paul Bastide, it is directed by Maurice Stréliski and the sets are by Marcel Robert.
The golden voice!
It was Victor Hugo who gave this name to Sarah Bernhardt (1844–1923), considered to be the greatest French actress of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Adored in France, her international fame led her to play on five continents in tours that were a triumph, particularly in the United States. She has played in some of the greatest dramas: Iphigenia, Phèdre, Ruy Blas, Britannicus, Andromache, Hernani, La Dame aux Camélias (The Lady of the Camelias), Fedora, Macbeth, Hamlet, Tosca, Salomé, Cléopâtre, Gismonda and remains famous for her emphatic declamatory style, her extravagance and her audacity.
She performs in Vichy on September 15, 1906 with her company in L'Aiglon (The Eaglet), a role written for her by Edmond Rostand in 1900. This is not the first time that Sarah Bernhardt performs in the spa town because, prior to 1901 she performs at the Casino and returns several times in 1903, 1907 and 1910 Andromache, Phèdre, Les Bouffons and The Lady of the Camelias. Each of these performances is an event of course.
A Master of the Baton
Some great composers have made their name in Vichy: Jules Massenet, Xavier Leroux, Marc Delmas, etc. In 1913, the theater devoted the week from July 1-6 to a festival called Saint-Saëns . For the occasion, two of its operas, Phryné and Les Barbares, created respectively in 1893 at the Opéra-Comique and in 1901 at the Opéra Garnier, premiered in the spa resort.
The Master, who is present, directs the rehearsals and watches the performances. Grand concerts complete these celebrations. Among the programs, which include many of his works, Camille Saint-Saëns plays his piece for piano and orchestra Africa and conducts his symphonic poem Phaëton. A repeat performance of his most famous opera, Samson et Dalila, topped off this beautiful artistic event.
The 1914 season is abruptly interrupted when war is declared on August 1st. The Casino's entire program is cancelled. One would think that the war would put an end to the summer season but this is not the case. The city's hotels are very quickly requisitioned and the convoys of wounded soldiers increase. However, the thermal bath establishments remain in operation and many people continue to come to Vichy. As early as April 1915, the Casino Company obtains authorization to reopen the Casino. Concerts under the kiosks, on the veranda and performances of comedies resume. The only concession, the theater is not open during the war due to a lack of staff. A temporary hall is installed in the main hall of the Casino until the 1919 season. Wooden chairs replace the armchairs and a small stage is used for performances given mainly to benefit charitable organizations.
In 1929, the famous company of Serge de Diaghilev's Ballets Russes comes to Vichy. The troupe, based in Monte Carlo, Paris or London, almost never performed in the provinces. However, the spa town's reputation during the inter-war period is such that the troupe comes for a series of performances from July 30 to August 4 and performs ballets from its repertoire (La Boutique Fantasque, Carnaval, Swan Lake, Les Matelots, Les Sylphides, Le Tricorne). These performances are an opportunity to see Serge Lifar or Balanchine dance in sets and costumes by Derrain, Korovine or Picasso! These were to be the last four performances of this Russian troupe: Diaghilev, who was not well, did not come to Vichy and died two weeks later in Venice. The troupe does not survive its founder and disbands.
An international scene
The summer of 1935 is particularly brilliant and rich in performances: On July 28, Fedor Shalyapin performs in Don Quichotte, an opera by Jules Massenet, which he had already interpreted in Vichy in 1911. The singer – the greatest Russian bass of his time – became known in France for his incarnation of Boris Godounov, a role he sang in Vichy in 1932 and 1933.
The month of July ends with the complete performance of La Tétralogie (The Ring) by Richard Wagner in Vichy. René Chauvet, who conducts the Théâtre de Bordeaux in the winter, programs a premier cycle of The Ring of the Nibelung there and takes over direction of Karl Elmendorff, the Bayreuth conductor, for a second cycle in Vichy in the summer, which he also directs.
The Rhine Gold, The Valkyrie, Siegfried and Twilight of the Gods are programmed between July 31 and August 8 with the help of renowned artists: Marjorie Lawrence, Georgette Frozier, Marisa Ferrer, Victor Forti, José de Trévi. Everything is done to encourage Wagner fans to come to Vichy since the German festival is canceled that year. Vichy replaces Bayreuth! Railway companies and hotels offer substantial discounts to watch all four operas. It has considerable success and the performances are broadcast on the radio.
The month of August is reserved for the great Italian Galas: The Force of destiny, Norma, Aïda. The Italian artists, Aurora Buadès, Gina Cigna, Francesco Battaglia and Cesare Formichi come from La Scala or from La Fenice. The works are conducted by Franco Capuana, Conductor at the Théâtre de San-Carlo de Naples and La Fenice in Venice.
September 2-9, the Congress of the Permanent Council for the International Cooperation of Composers meets at the Grand Casino in Vichy. It was chaired by its founder Richard Strauss. Seventeen nations are represented by 78 composers. The debates concern the moral rights of composers, music teaching, the role of radio, the creation of an international archive of contemporary music, the constitution of an international music library in Paris and the major centers of music, and more generally discuss the organization of artistic exchanges.
A brilliant festival is organized on the fringe of the debates, with a program of great symphonic concerts, chamber music concerts, concerts under the park and lyrical performances. The composers present conduct their own works. On the opening night, Richard Strauss conducts The Sorcerer's Apprentice by Paul Dukas who had recently died, followed by his opera Salomé a few days later.
Under the French government
As in 1914, season 39 is interrupted by the declaration of war. When the government takes up residency in Vichy on June 29, 1940, the Grand Casino is requisitioned and the Casino Society does not organize any more shows there until the liberation. On July 10, 1940, the National Assembly votes by a very large majority (569 votes for and 80 against ) to pass a constitutional law giving full powers to Marshal Pétain.
The post-war period or the splendors of yesteryear
After four years of occupation , the Société du Casino wants to restore Vichy to its pre-war glory. Despite the difficulties, the summer seasons resume in 1946. In addition to the staff and musicians of the orchestra, the dramatic, lyrical and choreographic troupes are reformed. That same year, Maurice Béjart makes his debut in the Vichy Theater ballet corps.
Maurice Béjart dances in The Two Pigeons, Swan Lake, The Spider's Feast, La Nuit ensorcelée, Boléro, Giselle, La Grisi, Sylvia, Coppelia among other things.
At the start of the 1950s, there are greater difficulties. The number of people visiting the thermal baths falls, the casino games are not flourishing in the same way and subsidies are reduced. The City of Vichy responds by creating a festival. With the support of the Grand Casino troupes, it organizes several weeks of major artistic events 1952–1963. In twelve years, spread over 200 days, Vichy hosts 120 concerts, 48 lyrical performances, 40 dance galas and theatrical evenings, which, of course, as always, include renowned artists. The end of the Festival and the upheavals of the time eventually lead the City and its Opera down other avenues, but that's another story!
Story written by the Vichy Opera Museum.
The Vichy Opera Museum preserves, manages, and enhances the value of the historical archives of the Vichy Opera House, which are owned by the City of Vichy.
Museum website : www.operavichy-musee.com
Vichy Opera House website: www.opera-vichy.com