Fabulous flamenco

The Beziers municipal theatre sits proudly at the upper end of the Allees Paul Riquet.  The Allees is a magnificent public space, a long, wide space, lined by huge plane trees, and bordered by impressive buildings.  The theatre was opened in 1844, when Beziers was in its “golden age”, a time of prosperity and expansion.  The building, with its classic, Greek-style façade, was designed by the architect Charles Isabelle.

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The auditorium is in the Italian style, with several tiers of U-shaped balconies stacked on top of one another.  It has been written that the municipal theatre in Beziers is unique in France, in that it has preserved its original decorative scheme throughout.  I had long admired the building from the outside, but until recently I had not seen any of the interior.

All that changed when I booked to go and see a performance of &dentidades with the dancer Pastora Galvan.  Walking along the Allees after sunset, with the theatre brightly lit up, I was not on my own – there were many other people going to see the same show!

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The entrance foyer was crowded with people and there were columns everywhere.  A sign indicated directions to the various parts of the theatre.  French theatres have a different seat numbering system to the ones I have encountered in other countries.  They start with seat one in the centre of the row, and work outwards, with even numbers running to the left and uneven to the right, as you face the stage.  The first time I went to a theatre in France, I was a little anxious as I thought I did not have a seat next to my companion.  I wasn’t sure that my French was up to persuading the person sitting between us to change seats with me :)!  Anyhow, in Beziers we had seats Y07 and Y09, towards the centre of the last row in the first balcony (there are three).  Luckily there was an usher to help me find the seats!

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On the first floor of the theatre, an enormous, colonnaded room awaited patrons, perhaps for drinks during the interval?

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The wooden staircase climbed to almost vertiginous heights!

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And then I was inside the auditorium!!  A riot of colour and painted ornamentation surrounded me, presided over by a huge, sparkling crystal chandelier.

One website has it that the original chandelier was removed by the Germans during the war, and melted down, and another site was lamenting the removal of the ornate stage curtain.  I’ll try and find the official book on the history of the theatre to verify those details, and perhaps I’ll be able to go on a “behind-the-scenes” tour at some point.

The theatre management had thought that we would all be feeling a little chilly, and so the heating was turned on full blast.  I managed to remove many layers and got nicely comfortable in my seat!

When the curtain opened there were a couple of chairs on the left, and a clothes rail, a coat rack, a small table and a chair on the right of the stage.  Two guitarists took their seats on the chairs, and three men stood beside them – two of them singers, and the third in charge of clapping.  In flamenco there is a lot of rhythmic clapping, and it’s quite an art to get it right. After a few minutes, Pastora Galvan appeared on stage, in a very elaborate white dress, and sat at the little table by the side of the stage, listening to the musicians for a little while.  When she started her performance, it was with slow movements, gracefully moving the train of her dress as she turned.  After that first dance she changed her costume and style of dancing, and continued to do this for each subsequent dance.

The idea behind the show was to pay tribute to seven heroes of the flamenco universe: Matilde Coral, Manuela Carrasco, Milagros Mengíbar, Loli Flores, Carmen Ledesma, Eugenia de los Reyes and Jose Galvan, the last two being Pastora Galvan’s mother and father.

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The whole show was brilliantly conceived and executed, and highly enjoyable to watch!  The costumes were sumptuous and the music was very emotionally charged.  I don’t know enough about flamenco to be able to fully appreciate the gestures and moves, the texts of the songs etc, but what I watched left me awestruck.

My camera did not work too well with the low light levels inside the theatre, so my pictures and videos of the show are not as sharp and clear as I would have wanted.  All the same I hope that they’ll give you a taste of what it was like!

And here are three videos of &dentidades (e-mail subscribers, please visit the website to watch them):

The videos will give you an idea of what it was like, but nothing beats seeing a live performance.  If you are tempted to visit the area and see a show, drop me a line, I’ll try and help!!

A night at the theatre

Recently, friends invited me to join them for a visit to the theatre in Pezenas.  They had been telling me about this historical theatre for ages, and I had been longing to go – so this was it!  The theatre is tucked away in a narrow side street, and the facade of it is rather plain, save for a very ornate doorway.  If you look at the top half of the door casing there is nothing much to hint at what lies behind the entrance:

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There are no flashing signs, no names up in lights!  With the large wooden doors closed it would look like many other buildings in Pezenas.  BUT, the wooden doors were open and allowed a glimpse into the foyer:

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Very little is known of the early history of the theatre, but a description of it was made by the then town architect, Joseph Montgaillard, in 1855.  The town of Pezenas purchased the building in 1857, and in 1899 a series of renovation projects started, improving seating and stage machinery, as well as replacing the painted stage curtain.  In 1925 (!!) the theatre was electrified. I couldn’t find out whether it was lit with gas or candlelight before then. In 1947 the theatre closed down – I am assuming that it might have been due to the poor state of repair of the building.  You can find out a little more about the history of the theatre here.  There are also some pictures of it before the restoration began, on that website.

Work on the restoration didn’t start until 1998, after the theatre had been closed for more than 50 years!!  It finished with the re-opening of the theatre in 2012.  During those 14 years absolutely everything was worked on.  The building was made watertight, the interior restored and up-to-date technical services were installed.  Here is what it looks like today:

Door to the stalls

Door leading to the stalls

Former box office windows in the foyer

Former box office windows in the foyer

Detail of art deco decorations in the foyer

Detail of art deco decorations in the foyer

The foyer did not prepare me for the sumptuous interior of the auditorium

Auditorium of the historic theatre in Pezenas

Auditorium of the historic theatre in Pezenas

The photo above is of the view from the first floor balcony straight down to the stage.  The walls in the stalls and on the balcony are covered with striped wallpaper, faithfully reproduced after fragments of the original paper.

The ceiling was intricately painted and had been painstakingly restored:

The coat of arms of the town of Pezenas adorns the proscenium:

Coat of arms of the town of Pezenas

Coat of arms of the town of Pezenas

A new chandelier was created to light the auditorium:

the chandelier

The chandelier

Unfortunately the main stage curtain was not lowered during my visit, but apparently it is very much in keeping with the decorations you can see below:

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Top of the proscenium arch

Bit by bit the other patrons arrived, and the theatre filled up.  When it was time for the performance to begin the theatre was pretty full!

The auditorium filling up

The auditorium filling up

During the performance I took no pictures – I was too self-conscious of the loud click of the camera, and aware that the pictures might not be all that good with the low lighting conditions.  The piece we’d come to see was L’homme qui voulait voir les anges, The man who wanted to see the angels.  It was an amazing mix of storytelling and music, performed by Kamel Guennoun and the Trio Zephyr. I was totally mesmerized and carried along by the story and the music.  The simplicity of it was breathtaking – only the four chairs on the stage and the lights, which dimmed a little at times, but that was it!  A totally amazing evening all around!

2 Beings or not 2 Beings

This week’s post has been contributed by Annie Parker, my friend and trusted proof-reader, without whom my texts would be full of grammatical errors and mistakes.  Thank you so much for sharing your Commedia dell’Arte impressions with all of us, Annie!

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Saint-Pons-de-Thomière is a lovely place to visit.  Thus, when we saw posters and flyers for this performance, it took very little persuasion to convince us to go:

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Before I go any further, let me forewarn you that the photos you will find here will not be in any way up to the quality that you have come to expect in this blog.  These were taken with my little, outdated cellphone, and the first several were taken through the windshield of our moving car.  (Don’t worry!  I wasn’t driving!)

The drive from Saint-Chinian to St Pons is especially beautiful, because most of it takes you through the Parc Naturel Régional du Haut-Languedoc.  These pictures in no way come close to showing you how truly beautiful it is, but at least they’ll give you some concept of it:

And then, almost without transition, there we were in St Pons!

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A major reason that St Pons fascinates and attracts us is that there are entire sections where the sidewalks are made of marble – not just scraps and pebbles of marble, but slabs of incredibly beautiful marble. We looked in awe at these beautiful sidewalks, wondering whether perhaps we should have removed our shoes before walking on them, but in St Pons they seem to take them thoroughly for granted.

They even have a couple of marble benches, one of which is made of the wonderful red marble that comes from this area:

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After hunting around for a bit, trying to figure out exactly where the performance was taking place, we finally saw chairs set up in a lovely courtyard behind the Mairie, complete with toilet facilities

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as well as a mini “bistrot”, serving drinks and small things to eat:

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As you can see from the photo above, we got there quite early – the seats were empty – but not for long:

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The audience was having a great time, chattering away, but some of us who were looking at the stage noticed a rather comic character sneakily attempting to get our attention:

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(Note how few people actually are focussing on him!)  But ultimately the total audience was brought to attention by a woman making announcements – and then the show started in earnest.  Almost immediately, the – well, he was something between a buffoon and a clown – captured everyone’s attention by clambering off the stage, into the audience:

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Oh!  The tension and attention that creates — the great fear (at least on my part):  will I be the next victim?!

In case you were wondering about the title, “Etre Ou Ne Pas Etre”, the show was centred around Shakespeare soliloquies:

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But it was also what my husband referred to as “a two-character show with one actor” – and thus another aspect of “to be or not to be” was created:  as the play progresses, we discover that the comic character we have gotten to know a bit is a character created by an actor who has a dream of putting on a one-man show of the most important Shakespearean soliloquies.

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He is, however, having great difficulty finding anyone to back him in this endeavour.  In an attempt to invigorate his performance, he brings his voice down to a low, hoarse, croaking quality and throws on an old hat that he has discovered – thereby becoming the comic character that we have already gotten to know.

As the show progresses, there are physical tussles between the two characters (behind the screen), each trying to take control of the other, complete with bangs and booms; curtains jostling around, ‘showing’ the struggle ensuing behind them; hands leaping up above the screen or being pulled submissively back from between the curtains; with one or another of the characters periodically appearing to the audience, only to be dragged back behind the screen by the ‘other’ character.  It was a wonderful piece of pantomime!

In the end, the comic character submits to the actor . . . or does he?

The enthusiasm of the audience, with vigorous applause, punctuated by cries of “Bravo!” brought Luca Franceschi, the actor, comic, and creator of the show back for repeated curtain calls, all immensely deserved, as far as we were concerned.

Strangely, the drive back home seemed even more beautiful, possibly because of the different perspective . . . possibly because of the evening shadows . . . possibly because we had been emotionally opened up by the performance.  Fortunately, it was still light enough outside to take a couple of additional pictures.

Good bye, St Pons!  Thank you for a wonderful afternoon!

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