Bandits Prance, Nuns Rise From Graves in Paris Exhibit

``The Mime Charles Deburau'' (1850) by Jean Pezous. The oil painting is at the Musee de la Vie Romantique in Paris through July 15. Source: Musee Carnavalet via Bloomberg

If you love “Children of Paradise,” here’s an exhibition for you.

Marcel Carne’s 1945 movie, regularly shortlisted as one of the best of all time, tells the story of Garance (Arletty), a fun-loving girl torn between two admirers, the actor Frederick Lemaitre (Pierre Brasseur) and the mime Baptiste Deburau (Jean-Louis Barrault).

Although Garance is an invention of the screenwriter Jacques Prevert, the two rivals were historical figures. They both appear in “Romantic Theaters in Paris,” a delightful show at the Musee de la Vie Romantique.

Deburau (1796-1846), who came from a family of acrobats and fairground performers in Bohemia, was the star of the Theatre des Funambules on Boulevard du Temple, also known as Boulevard du Crime because of the gory crowd-pleasers that dominated the repertoire.

He and his son Charles, who took over his roles after his death, turned Pierrot, the pale-faced, white-clad stock character of traditional Italian comedy, into a human being.

Lemaitre (1800-1876) was the most flamboyant French actor of the 19th century. A color print shows him as the legendary bandit Robert Macaire in the melodrama “L’Auberge des Adrets.” Played for laughs and with an outfit picked up at the flea market, it became his signature role.

Napoleon’s Favorite

Other portraits immortalize Talma, Napoleon’s favorite actor, and Rachel, the daughter of a Jewish junk dealer who couldn’t even speak proper French when she started her career: She became the most acclaimed tragedienne of her time.

The exhibition isn’t limited to spoken theater. Opera fans will appreciate the sketches and maquettes for the world premieres of Gounod ‘s “Faust,” Meyerbeer’s “Les Huguenots” and Victor Hugo’s “Le Roi s’Amuse,” the source of Verdi’s “Rigoletto.”

Maria Malibran, the prima donna who has inspired Cecilia Bartoli, and Gilbert Duprez, the first tenor to sing the high C note -- in Rossini’s “Guillaume Tell” -- from the chest, not from the head, appear in two forgotten operas by Fromental Halevy, Bizet’s father-in-law.

Rossini wasn’t amused by the chest C. He compared it to “the squawk of a capon with its throat cut.”

After Rossini’s early retirement, the German-born Meyerbeer, with his librettist Eugene Scribe, dominated the Paris Opera for more than 30 years. A lithograph in the show depicts the most sensational scene -- the ballet of dead nuns who rise from their graves -- in “Robert le Diable,” their first hit.

Dancing Fever

Another section of the show pays homage to the great dancers of the Romantic age -- Carlotta Grisi, the first Giselle; Maria Taglioni, the first Sylphide; and Fanny Elssler, whose Cachucha, a Spanish dance, spread “Cachucha Fever” throughout Paris.

The ballerina Lola Montez, whose portrait is also in the exhibition, made her name less with her legs than with other parts of her body that proved irresistible to King Ludwig I of Bavaria. His affair with the “Bavarian Pompadour,” as she was dubbed, cost him his throne.

The exhibition is by no means complete. You look in vain for the great theater scandals of the period -- the premiere of Hugo’s “Hernani” (1830) and the first performance of Wagner’s “Tannhauser” in Paris (1861). Both ended in riots.

Never mind. This is a must for theater buffs.

“Romantic Theaters in Paris” is at the Musee de la Vie Romantique through July 15. Information:

(Jorg von Uthmann is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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