View from the Baignoire

Hotel Mercure Chateau Chatron, Bordeaux

Darlene and I managed to get a surprising amount of sleep Monday on the night train from Cannes to Bordeaux. When we found our couchette, a room with two beds up and two down, a man was in one of the upper berths reading. We settled into the two lower beds, and later another man joined us to fill the room. This level of intimacy with strangers did not tempt me to ask anyone how to pronounce words in French, so the eight-hour trip passed without conversation.

In Bordeaux we spent yesterday exploring the old downtown area, settling into our hotel, and taking advantage of “Épicuriales 2005,” a collection of tents set up by the restaurants of Bordeaux, offering “un voyage gastronomique et planétaire d’exception,” a worldwide dining voyage without exception. It was located along the allées de Tourny, which leads to the Grand-Théâtre de Bordeaux, the city’s highest-starred attraction in the Michelin red guide. After lunch, we stopped by “Le Kiosque Culture” near the theater to see if anything was playing.

The young man at the counter said “La Veuve Joyeuse” an operetta by Franz Lehar, was playing (The Merry Widow), and that he had several half-priced “front row” seats. This sounded good, so we grabbed two for a total of 70 euros. Under the verity that things which are too good to be true usually aren’t, it should have been no surprise that the front row seats were in a little closet at the side of the orchestra, a “baignoire.” An older couple joined us in our baignoire, which had a total of eight chairs in it, looking out through a rectangular opening into the theater. The woman raised a metal screen from the bottom of the opening and explained that the baignoire was originally where highly placed mistresses would be seated, behind the screen, so they could watch a performance without the audience being able to see them.

The acoustics weren’t terrific in the baignoire, and there was a lot of the stage we couldn’t see. But the performance was magnificent, with a huge cast of singers and dancers, strong leads, and a large orchestra. I was glad to see that the house was packed, not a seat available that we might have tried to purchase if we’d known to ask if there was anything other than the front row of a baignoire.

During the intermission, our friends from Bordeaux, whose name I never got, took us on a tour of the theater, which was built in 1780. We made our way to the dizzying top level of seats, which is called “paradise” but it’s also referred to as a place for chickens, the woman said, because frequently children sit up there and make a lot of noise. It had a good view of the beautiful round painting on the ceiling.

Much work has been done to restore the theater, all with government money from the national and regional levels. In fact, the entire theater, with its operating costs and the renovation, is supported by public funds, the Bordeaux couple told us. There was not a single corporate sponsor’s logo to be found, which was a big difference from attending a similar cultural event in the U.S., and no list of individual patrons at various levels of giving. I’m sure there are strong arguments for either model, but my first reaction was to prefer the sense of a theater supported by enthusiasts willing to donate their own resources, as opposed to a theater for which all decisions are made by cultural government officials. It is also certain that further exploration of exactly how the Grand-Théâtre is supported would provide more-solid ground for comparisons than the comments during intermission of two theater-goers, especially since I was understanding no more than about 70 percent of what they were saying.

Darlene’s take on the difference is to note that people here seem to share a strong attachment to the theater which might be less if it were perceived to be mainly the project of corporate and individual elites. The Bordeaux couple clearly illustrated this, as did a woman at the culture kiosk who overheard our questions to the young man and urged us to attend the operetta, saying, “we’re very proud of our theater.”

I understood very little of the French spoken and sung on the stage, but the romantic comedy was simple enough to follow with the help of some internet research beforehand. When the widow and her childhood love overcame all their misunderstandings, as well as the little problem of her huge fortune, their joyous embrace was followed by a riot of dancing and singing by the entire cast, including a display of circus-like acrobatics by two male dancers leaping high and landing in full splits.

Our friend Françoise used to live near the Grand-Théâtre here in Bordeaux, and she e-mailed us to say we must see La Rochelle, just north of here, which she called “probably the best small city in France.” So today’s excursion will be to use the last of the rail pass for a two-hour train trip to La Rochelle for lunch and back.

Darlene has been struck by how this city, near the Atlantic coast, seems so much more like England than has any other place we have seen so far in France. Here the colors are sober, the lines clean and elegant, creating a no-nonsense fashion compared with the bright colors and flowing skirts she has seen in Paris and the Cote d’Azur. People seem more proper here but still very helpful and friendly, especially our baignoire-mates at the theater, as well as the woman who helped Darlene buy a white (and flowing!) skirt to wear to the theater. Posted by Hello

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