The first stop on Hitler’s surprise visit to Paris, in June 1940, was the opera house.
When the janitor, still in his pajamas, was about to give his early guests a guided tour, the Fuehrer cut him short: He knew everything there was to know about the building.
Charles Garnier (1825-98), the architect of the Paris opera, is the subject of a delightful show at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts where he had been a student himself. Amazingly, it’s the first ever devoted to his life and work.
To make it snappier, the organizers asked the Canadian stage director and designer Robert Carsen to lend them a helping hand. He has done a splendid job.
Carsen presents Garnier’s early career in what looks like an architect’s studio with display cases lined up on long drawing tables. Their contents -- drawings, documents, photographs, watercolors and caricatures -- demonstrate Garnier’s many talents.
He was a brilliant draftsman and full of flamboyant ideas. Garnier even wrote libretti for operettas with titles such as “The Bear and the Pasha.”
That his father, a blacksmith, allowed him to pursue his artistic dreams was due to the boy’s delicate condition: He was too frail to work the bellows in the old man’s shop.
At age 23, Garnier won the prestigious Prix de Rome, which came with a five-year stay in the Italian capital. The encounter with Rome’s exuberant Baroque architecture marked him for the rest of his life.
Back in Paris, he had a couple of boring government jobs. An 1853 portrait by William Bouguereau shows a handsome yet vulnerable young man. In fact, he was treated in a “specialized institution” for a severe depression.
Then came the annus mirabilis. In 1861, Garnier won the competition for a new opera house, beating 170 rivals including Empress Eugenie’s favorite, Eugene Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, the great restorer of France’s medieval architecture.
When the empress indignantly asked the winner: “What kind of style is this? It’s neither Louis XV nor Louis XVI!” He answered: “It’s Napoleon III, Madame.”
So it was. The opera house became the signature building of the Second Empire.
On the upper floor of the exhibition, Garnier’s project is spread out in all its eclectic glory.
“Too much gold,” complained Viollet-le-Duc (whose project is also on view). Others were shocked by the lascivious sculptures adorning the façade: A furious prude hurled an inkpot at the most unbridled, Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux’s “La Danse.”
The show not only allows you to study details of the sumptuous decoration you normally miss. It also demonstrates the thoroughly modern engineering and metalwork beneath the neo-Baroque orgy of gold and marble.
The emperor didn’t rule long enough to attend the inauguration of the building that came to symbolize his reign. When the opera officially opened, in 1875, France was a republic and Garnier in the doghouse with the new regime.
An official letter displayed in the show invites him to pick up his ticket for the opening ceremony -- a mediocre seat priced at 120 francs.
“Charles Garnier: An Architect for an Empire” runs through Jan. 9, 2011, at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Paris. Information: http://www.ensba.fr or +33-1-4703-5000.
(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)