HOW AN AMERICAN HEIRESS HELPED TURN SALLE GARNIER INTO A CULTURAL DESTINATION.
AROUND THIS TIME last year, Prince Albert was heading off to New Orleans to celebrate the city’s tricentennial.
In honor of the cultural ties between the Big Easy and Monaco, the prince unveiled a plaque commemorating the birthplace of Marie Alice Heine, born on Royal Street in the French Quarter in 1857, who would later become Princess Alice when in 1889 she wed his great-great grandfather, Albert I, in Paris. It was a second marriage for both of them and the wealthy widow Alice, aka the Dowager Duchess de Richelieu, had a young son. (The couple later separated in 1902.)
While Albert I wasoff on oceanographic expeditions, Princess Alice played a considerable role in strengthening the financial and cultural development of the Principality, which was the vision of her father-in-law, Prince Charles III (1816-1889).
Known by his Monegasque and Italian title as Carlo III, Prince Charles cemented his country’s economic boom with the creation of the neighborhood of Monte Carlo, highlighted by the construction of the Casino in 1858. The Franco-Monegasque Treaty of 1861 enabled the prince to secure from Napoleon III “a carriage route from Nice to Monaco along the coast.” He managed to get the approval from the Paris-Lyon-Mediterranean Company, for trains to stop in the two stations in the Principality.
The gaming business was assigned to the Société des Bains de Mer et du Cercle des Étrangers à Monaco (SBM), created in 1863 and leased to Francois Blanc for fifty years. Within a decade, SBM was so profitable it was able to lend neighboring France a considerable sum of money for the completion of the Palais Garnier in Paris, designed by the architect that bears its name, after the war of 1870 had left their coffers empty.
Architect Charles Garnier was also behind the construction of Monte Carlo’s opera house, adjoining the casino. The Salle Garnier was completed in record time (eight and a half months while it took to 14 years for its Paris counterpart), and inaugurated on January 25, 1879, becoming part of Monte Carlo’s iconic Casino Square. It seats 524, compared to 2,000 at the Palais Garnier, and from 1898 to 1899 the stage was remodeled by Henri Schmit to make it more suitable for artistic performances.
Today the Salle Garnier is a prestigious venue for some of the most wonderful operas, ballets, and concerts in the Principality.
Over its 140-year history, only three times has the Opera been metamorphosed into a spectacular venue to host exclusive gala dinners. The first was in 1966 for the Ball of the Century, hosted by Princess Grace and Prince Rainier III, to celebrate Monte Carlo’s 100th anniversary; then a second time for the wedding of Prince Albert II and Princess Charlene in July 2011. The Opera was transformed for a third time in July 2013 to host the Love Ball, a fundraising gala event organized by The Naked Heart Foundation.
It was a century ago, on March 29, 1919, when Verdi’s Falstaff premiered at the Salle Garnier. To celebrate the occasion, the comic opera returned once again on January 25 of this year, with four outstanding shows staged by Monegasque Jean-Louis Grinda, the Opera de Monte-Carlo’s talented director since 2007.
Much of the Opera de Monte-Carlo’s early success on the world-class stage can be put down to the first American-born Princess of Monaco. “[Alice] fashioned the Principality into an elegant cultural destination and took a great interest in its grand opera,” writes Ned Hemard in 64 Parishes, a project of Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities. “The Diaghilev Ballet was also a mainstay.”