After the fire that destroyed the opera house, rebuilding work began in 1883 but was considerably postponed by administrative complications, opinion pieces in some newspapers and the pressure of public opinion, resulting in a 2-year delay. The construction work involved the interests of a number of different parties and triggered discordance when it came to the choice of location. This quarrel saw the declining old town pitted against the new city that was in a state of continuous expansion. After hesitating between three potential locations, including the Square des Phocéens (Place Albert 1er) and the terraces (old town), the third site was unanimously chosen: the old theatre that had been destroyed in the fire, with the inclusion of properties owned by Lacan, Boréa and Borrelli. The city launched a national architecture competition, with the jury chaired by Mr Borriglione (Mayor of Nice from January 1878 to May 1886).
The winner was François Aune, the city's official architect, who was born in Nice and studied in Turin. François Aune consulted with the renowned Charles Garnier, who was the inspector for civil construction at the time. The latter gave his definitive approval for the plans on 27 June 1884.
A decision by the town council was reached on 10 August 1882 and ratified by the Prefect a month later on 8 September, and the required budget was voted on. The budget was set at 1,550,000 francs, a sum that was significantly exceeded
In 1885, the final decorative works were completed and the new building was inaugurated on Saturday 7 February 1885 with a performance of Aida. This same season of Italian operas also included Faust, Ernani and Ruy Blas. The building occupied a surface area of 1,800 square metres. The main façade was located on Rue St-François-de-Paule, and was comprised of two avant-corps, both very elegantly embellished and each measuring 6.60 metres wide, and of a central section measuring 18 metres long. The avant-corps measured 24 metres high from the paving to the circular pediments, not including the cartouches at their tops. The central section measured 19 metres high. The exterior was a perfect reflection of the opulence that lay within, illuminated by a strip of gas lighting over the main façade as well as the rotunda and a section of the building on the Rue de la Terrasse side (today's Rue Raoul Bosio). Above the awning, the city's coat of arms shimmered. Elegant lanterns were dotted around, illuminating the building and the walkways on the upper floors. These open-air walkways were an incredible invention and were often visited by crowds of spectators during the intermissions. Visitors arriving by car entered via the main door in the middle, which was topped by a sweeping, elegant and finely-wrought iron awning. The main staircase was accessed via the rotunda embellished with an iron awning. The entrance here was reserved for the first three rows, seats, boxes and the stalls. As with the entrance on Rue St-François-de-Paule, this rotunda was punctuated by artistic ironwork features. The façade on the Quai du Midi was truly magnificent.
Above the main façade (Rue St-François-de-Paule) on the pillars of the upper terrace were four statues each measuring 2 metres high, created by the sculptor Monetta and representing Tragedy (Melpomene), Comedy (Thalia), Music (Euterpe) and Dance (Terpsichore). At the top of the rotunda were two 'Renommées' (winged women), one in celebration of the glory of France, and the other that of Nice. Two little spirits could be seen, one holding a cartouche bearing the engraved letters 'RF', and the other a cartouche featuring the city of Nice's coat of arms. On the rotunda's pediment was the inscription Heic blandis animum ludis recrare juvent Et risu et lacrymis oblectans scena docibit (In this place, the spirits shall be lifted with charming plays). The stage shall inform through entertaining, through laughter as through tears). Further on at Rue de la Terrasse, three other statues awaited: Inspiration, Execution and Impression. These three statues, as well as those dominating the rotunda, were chiselled by Mr Trabucco.
The building's ground floor measured 5 metres high and was made from stone sourced from the La Turbie quarries for its tight and refractory grain. The monolithic columns of the central section were made from red stone from Verona. The Corinthian bronze capitals were made by the 'Thiebaut Brothers' in Paris (see article in the Journal de l’Opéra n° 30). All of the other façade embellishments were made from Montpaon stone. The decorative intersections of the two avant-corps were topped by busts of Rossini and Meyerbeer. The iron joints between the columns of the façade and the attached rotunda were set with granular crystal stained glass pieces made by the enamel and glass artist Fassy.
Since its inauguration, the building has undergone significant changes, notably on the rotunda: the main entrance at the corner of the Rue de la Terrasse was moved to Rue Saint-François-de-Paule, the rotunda's awning was removed, as were the two winged women and two spirits. The steps of the rotunda were removed, as were three doors, which were turned into windows. The three statues on the Rue de la Terrasse were also removed, in addition to the two coats of arms of the city located above the awning. The two walkways still exist: one expands the Montserrat Caballé Foyer, while the other leads out to the current administrative offices.
Sources: Laure Baretge, L’évolution de la vie musicale à Nice de 1860 à 1914; Nice Riviera; Le Petit Niçois; L’éclaireur du Littoral; Fabron municipal archives; Bibliothèque de Cessole library; R. Rourret, Father Yves Marie Lequin, Latin translation.
PHOTO : © Dominique Jaussein
Opposite the entrance to the opera house is the stately staircase leading up to the main room. Laid out in a horseshoe shape, this 'Italian-style' theatre showcases the audience as much as it does the artists. Spectacular in size (19 metres wide and 23 metres long), the main theatre takes up three quarters of the total building space. It can accommodate up to 1,000 spectators. The front of the stage measures 13 metres wide, 14 metres high and 19 metres deep.
The décor here is opulent, featuring composite capitals, seating areas decked with gold on a cream backdrop and carpeted in red.
The fresco on the sweeping ceiling is the work of Menton painter Emmanuel Costa. It depicts an endless mythological sky. This style of ceiling, depicting open sky scenes, was initiated by the Italians in the late Renaissance and early Baroque periods.
PHOTO : © Dominique Jaussein
Costa's masterpiece is symbolic. In a highly academic style, it depicts Apollo, god of the Arts and music, and Aphrodite, goddess of love. Both of these figures are associated with other characters and creatures from myth, and are laid out in a sort of harmonious sphere. This spectacular painted ceiling is showcased by a monumental crystal chandelier.
PHOTOS : © Dominique Jaussein