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OPERA

Aria that cost Marie-Antoinette her head is sung again at Versailles

The last time the strains of the aria "Oh Richard! Oh my king!" echoed around the Opera Royal at Versailles it was for Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette just before they were dragged off to Paris and their doom by their revolting subjects.

Aria that cost Marie-Antoinette her head is sung again at Versailles
the Royal Opera of the Chateau de Versailles. Photo: AFP

The piece from “Richard the Lionheart” by Andre Gretry, one of the tragic queen's favourite composers, was last performed by the Palace of Versailles' own opera company in 1789, as the ancien regime crumbled.

This week it returned to the gilded chocolate-box opera, commissioned by the Sun King Louis XIV, after a 230-year break.

The lavishly decorated theatre was used less than 20 times — most famously for the festivities that followed Marie-Antoinette's marriage when she was just 14 — before she and her husband lost their heads in the French Revolution.

And it was the singing of the aria by the king's bodyguards when the royal couple appeared at a banquet at the opera on October 1st, 1789 that lead to their downfall, Versailles' theatre and events director Laurent Brunner told AFP.

Such a defiant display of royalist sentiment three months after the fall of Bastille incensed the hungry people of Paris, whose women marched out a few days later to take the royals back to the capital.

“It caused a scandal in revolutionary Paris,” said Brunner, with radical leaders like Marat and Danton branding the banquet “counter-revolutionary”.

Rumours circulated “that the revolutionary tricolour rosette has been trampled underfoot” by the royalist revellers, he added.

The false news was further fuelled by revolutionary tracts portraying the
banquet as an orgy and claims that the rosette had been turned over to show only the white side, the symbol of the king.

“Three days after (the news broke), the women of Paris marched on Versailles and the day after the palace was empty,” Brunner added.

By then the three-minute song about Richard the Lionheart, the English king who had also been taken hostage while he was returning from the Crusades, had become a royalist anthem.

It was quickly banned by the revolutionary government.

Even before the monarchy fell, the comic opera had never been fully performed on the Versailles stage — which was formally inaugurated on Marie-Antoinette's wedding day as a gift to the opera-loving teenager.

She later built her own little theatre, the Trianon, in the grounds of the palace where she would put on amateur dramatics starring herself and her friends, and stage concerts by her favourite composers like Gretry and Gluck.

Having hardly hosted another opera from the revolution right up until its restoration in 2009, the theatre is something of an 18th-century time capsule, with machinery to match.

Its design may have been revolutionary in its time — allowing for the stalls to be removed for balls and banquets — but today it takes brawn as well as brains to operate.

Six levels above the stage, Carlos Casado hauls the backdrops up and down by hand, one of the last machinists in France to do so.

“It is quite tough physically,” he admitted. “It is like working at theatre's very beginnings.

“The movements need to be very quick, and a lot depends on 'feeling' so it all goes with the music,” he added.

Even though “Richard the Lionheart” is a story from the Middle Ages, Canadian director Marshall Pynkoski has set the new production in Versailles' 18th-century heydey.

“There is a real emotion about working here at Versailles,” said Camille Assaf, the costume designer. “The atmosphere gets deeply into you,” she told AFP.

She reproduced costumes “by looking at an awful lot at paintings by Watteau, Fragonard and Boucher” to catch “the very particular grace” of the period.

The next production at the Opera Royal will be another nod to the palace's rich history — “The Ghosts of Versailles”, which was created by the New York Metropolitan Opera nearly 40 years ago.

In it Beaumarchais — the author of “The Marriage of Figaro” — tries to change the course of history so that Marie-Antoinette keeps her head and never has to face “Madame Guillotine”.

READ ALSO: Paris Opera dancers complain of bullying and sexual harassment

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HISTORY

‘Lost’ manuscript of pro-Nazi French author published 78 years later

A book by one of France's most celebrated and controversial literary figures arrives in bookstores this week, 78 years after the manuscript disappeared

'Lost' manuscript of pro-Nazi French author published 78 years later

It is a rare thing when the story of a book’s publication is even more mysterious than the plot of the novel itself.

But that might be said of Guerre (War) by one of France’s most celebrated and controversial literary figures, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, which arrives in bookstores on Thursday, some 78 years after its manuscript disappeared.

Celine’s reputation has somehow survived the fact that he was one of France’s most eager collaborators with the Nazis.

Already a superstar thanks to his debut novel Journey to the End of the Night (1932), Celine became one of the most ardent anti-Semitic propagandists even before France’s occupation.

In June 1944, with the Allies advancing on Paris, the writer abandoned a pile of his manuscripts in his Montmartre apartment.

Celine feared rough treatment from authorities in liberated France, having spent the war carousing with the Gestapo, and giving up Jews and foreigners to the Nazi regime and publishing racist pamphlets about Jewish world conspiracies.

For decades, no one knew what happened to his papers, and he accused resistance fighters of burning them. But at some point in the 2000s, they ended up with retired journalist Jean-Pierre Thibaudat, who passed them – completely out of the blue – to Celine’s heirs last summer.

‘A miracle’
Despite the author’s history, reviews of the 150-page novel, published by Gallimard, have been unanimous in their praise.

“The end of a mystery, the discovery of a great text,” writes Le Point; a “miracle,” says Le Monde; “breathtaking,” gushes Journal du Dimanche.

Gallimard has yet to say whether the novel will be translated.

Like much of Celine’s work, Guerre is deeply autobiographical, recounting his experiences during World War I.

It opens with 20-year-old Brigadier Ferdinand finding himself miraculously alive after waking up on a Belgian battlefield, follows his treatment and hasty departure for England – all based on Celine’s real experiences.

His time across the Channel is the subject of another newly discovered novel, Londres (London), to be published this autumn.

If French reviewers seem reluctant to focus on Celine’s rampant World War II anti-Semitism, it is partly because his early writings (Guerre is thought to date from 1934) show little sign of it.

Journey to the End of the Night was a hit among progressives for its anti-war message, as well as a raw, slang-filled style that stuck two fingers up at bourgeois sensibilities.

Celine’s attitude to the Jews only revealed itself in 1937 with the publication of a pamphlet, Trifles for a Massacre, which set him on a new path of racial hatred and conspiracy-mongering.

He never back-tracked. After the war, he launched a campaign of Holocaust-denial and sought to muddy the waters around his own war-time exploits – allowing him to worm his way back into France without repercussions.

‘Divine surprise’
Many in the French literary scene seem keen to separate early and late Celine.

“These manuscripts come at the right time – they are a divine surprise – for Celine to become a writer again: the one who matters, from 1932 to 1936,” literary historian Philippe Roussin told AFP.

Other critics say the early Celine was just hiding his true feelings.

They highlight a quote that may explain the gap between his progressive novels and reactionary feelings: “Knowing what the reader wants, following fashions like a shopgirl, is the job of any writer who is very financially constrained,” Celine wrote to a friend.

Despite his descent into Nazism, he was one of the great chroniclers of the trauma of World War I and the malaise of the inter-war years.

An exhibition about the discovery of the manuscripts opens on Thursday at the Gallimard Gallery and includes the original, hand-written sheets of Guerre.

They end with a line that is typical of Celine: “I caught the war in my head. It is locked in my head.”

In the final years before his death in 1961, Celine endlessly bemoaned the loss of his manuscripts.

The exhibition has a quote from him on the wall: “They burned them, almost three manuscripts, the pest-purging vigilantes!”

This was one occasion – not the only one – where he was proved wrong.

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