Return to gilt and glory
Not Back to the Future but onwards into the past: The largest historical theatre on the banks of the Seine has reopened after renovation, looking again like it did when it first opened in 1862. Following many months of painstaking work restoring the auditorium, foyer and façades, and freeing the building of asbestos and layers of lead-paint, it not only looks beautiful but also boasts state-of-the-art stage technology.
The Théâtre du Chatelet is more than a theatre.
Within the mosaic of Parisian cultural monuments, it is indisputably one of the most priceless elements. Yet Parisians had stopped perceiving it as a treasure and come to see it as a rather bulky and almost nondescript box. Its charm had been compromised by everyday life. Cafés, restaurants and a hotel are housed in the lateral facades, running parallel to the banks of the Seine. In fact, there is no more central, symbolic and architecturally harmonious place in the French capital than the Place du Châtelet with its twin playhouses, the Théâtre de la Ville (originally Théâtre Sarah Bernhardt) and the outwardly identical Théâtre du Châtelet. Designed by Gabriel Davioud, one of the leading architects behind the iconic redevelopment of Paris under Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann, they are examples of the distinctive Parisian aesthetic we now know. Restoration of the Théâtre de la Ville started in November 2016 and still awaits completion. Meanwhile, the Théâtre du Châtelet was reopened to the public in October 2019, despite renovation having started four months later.
In the 2019/20 season, many major dance performances by the Théâtre de la Ville – including pieces by Pina Bausch, William Forsythe and Merce Cunningham – will be shown at the Théâtre du Châtelet, as occurred before it closed for renovation. It was re-opened 30 months later, in October 2019, under a new artistic director, Jean-Luc Choplin.
The legacy of the avantgarde
The restoration work from spring 2017 to autumn 2019 was the fifth major overhaul for the Théâtre du Châtelet. The first took place only three-and-a-half decades after the building’s completion, in 1898; the next after an even shorter lapse, in 1928. In 1979/80 the proscenium frame was recessed in order to expand the orchestra pit and accommodate symphonic orchestras, and new seating installed to ensure greater comfort, which reduced the capacity from 2500 to 2000. In 1988/89 improvements were carried out on the acoustics and sightlines, and in 1998/99 the entire stage technology was overhauled and digitalized. This latest round of modernization work was intended to bring the technology up to mid-21st century standards.
At the start of the 20th century, the theatre had its own ballet ensemble; in 1900, Richard Wagner conducted his first concert on French soil here. It had already been renovated once at that point, starting a process that steadily buried its original appearance under regular refurbishments. The architects responsible for the current renovation know all about this; like archeologists, they investigated the building’s past. In the foyers, they found various layers of paint, covering over the original decoration of many walls with repeated refurbishments, sometimes using paint containing lead. What they found under the paint in many areas amazed them: Faux marble finishes in polished oil paints. These exquisite surfaces were completely restored. The exterior facades likewise showed traces of lead – from decades of car-exhaust deposits – which also needed to be removed.
Under French law, no renovation work can take place until all substances containing lead have been completely removed, to ensure that none of the professionals involved in the renovation work are exposed to health hazards. The same applies, of course, to asbestos, plenty of which was also found here. Partly due to these requirements, renovation now took longer than the building’s original construction.
Not all that is gold glitters
In the auditorium, too, the main objective was to restore the original design by recreating the ornament on the balconies and boxes. Every past refurbishment had added another coating of paint. Gabriel Davioud had created an auditorium in subtly modulated gold tones, having certain elements decorated with gold leaf and others with bronzine, a matt-golden varnish. But over the years, the nuances had been levelled and the colours standardized at the expense of brilliance. The original scheme had already disappeared by the end of the 19th century, says Pumain, and gradually been replaced by a uniform “beige”. Layer by layer, the paint was removed and where necessary the gold leaf renewed. Now the hall shines once again, as it did at its inauguration, in two subtly contrasting hues of gold. These are rivaled in splendour by the newly renovated, elegant Second-Empire ceiling glazing with its airy struts and ornamentation. In the 19th century, the hall was illuminated by gas lamps installed behind the glass dome. Today there are LED tubes. The theatre hopes that the range of light colours and intensities that are now available will inspire directors and lighting designers to use the hall itself as a scenographic element.
The newly renovated theatre re-opened its doors in September 2019, on European Heritage Day (Journée Européenne du patrimoine) – showing the Théâtre de Chatelet as an impressive cultural emblem once again. And that was precisely the goal of the entire operation, which was not only completed on time but also only slightly exceeded the budget of 31.5 million Euros by 2 million.
Equipped for the future
And now for the technology: The current renovation aimed primarily to increase the capacity of the hoists while reducing energy consumption and meeting strict safety regulations. Another priority was to increase the loading capacity and speed of the load hoists, which have been fully motorized since 1999.
To achieve this, the motor blocks for all 60 winches were replaced. For reasons of environmental sustainability, the soundproof casings, cable drums and mechanical parts were kept. The load-bearing capacity of the load rods was raised from 500 kg to 700 kg and their speed increased to 1.6 m/sec with up to 500 kg or 1.2 m/sec carrying up to 750 kg. The overall performance, then, has been improved by 40 percent, allowing more elaborate and complex stage sets to be deployed – with improved, modulated speed controls that can be programmed with complete flexibility. Fourteen load hoists can now be steered simultaneously by digital means. The lighting control booth was fitted with a new ETC EOS Ti console. And a newly installed cable network will help the Châtelet keep up with rising standards of data transmission. The digital controls for all overhead components were equipped with the new Waagner-Biro CAT V5 control system, compliant with the EU safety standard SIL 3. All elements are now suspended on 59 new 50mm load rods. For safety reasons, the entire electrical wiring for the stage and all data transmission networks were renewed.
New speaker systems and spotlights were installed and the old spotlights at the centre-back of the house removed. This created space for over 50 more seats with excellent views. Other improvements aim to reduce the theatre’s environmental impact. Electricity generated by lowering loads is fed back into the internal power supply, meaning that 60 percent less electricity is required to power the 91 motors that move the load rods.