A Night at the Opera

Last night we went to the opera at the ancient Roman ampitheater in Orange, a city about 45 minutes from here. Unfortunately, I failed to check the camera battery before we left, so the only pics we have are these taken with Johann’s phone. They’re not the best, but you’ll get the general idea.

We rolled into town well in advance of the 9:30p.m. opening curtain to do a little sightseeing. There’s plenty to see in Orange. We started with the Arc de Triomphe (pictured), an impressive structure with reliefs depicting Roman domination of the Gauls. As our friend Ed once said, “If you went around building an arch every time you defeated the French, it would be a full-time public works project.” I think the Romans would agree.

Orange is also home to a beautiful 19th century theater, a 17th century Protestant temple, the Cathedral of Our Lady of Nazareth and a statue of Raimbaud, the Count of Orange who participated in the Crusade of 1099 and the capture of Jerusalem. One of my favorite places, though, was the village square outside the town hall (Hôtel de Ville in French). There was just something magical about the space. The height of the buildings, their proximity to one another, the grandeur of the Hôtel de Ville clock tower… It was busy and tranquil at the same time, the sort of place where you could sit at a café watching people pass by and not notice that time was doing the same thing.

We had dinner (salmon tartare followed by beef Wellington with morel mushroom sauce and mashed potatoes, then a zesty lemon tartelette) at a restaurant near the theater whose brisk service told us that their Saturday night crowd must be comprised mainly of theater-goers who needed to be finished with dinner by 9:00 at the latest.

Once inside the theater, we stopped to catch our breath. The Roman ampitheater in Orange was built around the time of the big B.C. – A.D. changeover and is in spectacular condition. Unlike the Italian workmanship you see these days (Fiat, I’m looking in your direction) early Rome built stuff to last. This theater is the best-preserved in the Western Roman Empire, and is one of the only ones with the wall behind the stage still intact.

The show started promptly at 9:30 and anyone not already in their seat was out of luck. The seats, by the way, are just as the Romans designed them, slabs of cold, hard stone. Luckily, we had been tipped off and had brought seat cushions from home like most of the rest of the crowd. For the next four hours (minus a half-hour intermission) we were spellbound. Faust was magnificent, Méphistophélès was deliciously evil and Marguerite was winsome and tragic.

Given the juxtaposition of this particular opera in this particular place, I was reminded of something that Alain de Botton wrote: “Ruins reprove us for our folly of sacrificing peace of mind for the unstable rewards of earthly power.” Indeed.


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