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3.6.11

Concert Series in the Romanian Embassy in Paris

Paris is full of discoveries out of the way, known only to a few. One of them, which I have never seen myself, is in the 7e arrondissement: a Byzantine-style private theater in the Hôtel de Béhague (127, rue Saint-Dominique), at 600-some seats the city's largest. Built on the basilica floor plan associated with Byzantine churches (see this amateur video), the theater was designed by Gustave-Adolphe Gerhardt (1843-1921), a winner of the Prix de Rome for architecture also known for other hôtels particuliers and for restoring the Collège de France. The property was largely the work of Martine de Béhague, comtesse de Béarn (1870-1939), an eccentric lady who inherited an enormous fortune from railways and spent it all on a fabulous art collection for her unusual home in Paris; she also supported Paul Verlaine and hired Paul Valéry as her secretary and librarian. It is now the Embassy of Romania, which is hosting a small concert series next week (June 6 to 9), reported by Renaud Machart (La Salle byzantine révèle le mystère de sa splendeur fanée, June 4) in Le Monde (my translation):
The countess's passion for music was no less important. Herself an organist (like the Princesse de Polignac [the Singer sewing machine heiress], the other important Parisian patron of the period) and a student of Charles-Marie Widor, Martine de Béhague organized private and public concerts, inviting the best international artists. In the main salon, one could meet Proust as well as Wagner's widow, because unlike the Princesse de Polignac, who expressly championed avant-garde composers, the Comtesse de Béhague succumbed to the Wagner bug and was especially devoted to more academic composers. The stage space of the Salle Byzantine, large than that of the Opéra-Comique, could fit an orchestra of 24 players and staged productions (when a movable pit housed the musicians).

Connected to the Swiss director and visionary theoretician Adolphe Appia, who mounted his first production in the Salle Byzantine, she gave carte blanche to the dress designer Mariano Fortuny, the enthusiast of revolutionary stage lighting. The Spaniard installed there a system of indirect projected and diffused light as well as a concave Cyclorama connected to a system of mirrors and colored cloth. Together, Appia and Fortuny created, thanks to the revolutionary equipment financed by the Countess (including the first independent control booth), an aesthetic ideal inherited from the Gesamtkunstwerk, the "total art work" dear to Richard Wagner.
The embassy building also has a lovely Bibliothèque Ovale. In addition to some Romanian musicians, the concert series will include Christophe Rousset and Les Talens Lyriques (June 8) and Montserrat Figueras et Jordi Savall (June 9). Consider this on the list for my next visit to Paris.

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