The Théâtre de la Ville is one of the two theatres built in the 19th century by Baron Haussmann at Place du Châtelet, Paris, the other being the Théâtre du Châtelet.
Included among its many previous names are Théâtre Lyrique, Théâtre des Nations, and Théâtre Sarah-Bernhardt.
The theatre, which until the fall of Napoleon III in 1870 was officially known as the Théâtre Lyrique Impérial, was designed by the architect Gabriel Davioud for Baron Haussmann between 1860 and 1862 for the opera company more commonly known simply as the Théâtre Lyrique
. That company's earlier theatre, the Théâtre Historique on the Boulevard du Temple, where it had performed since 1851, was slated for demolition as part of Haussmann's renovation of Paris. During the company's initial period on the Place du Châtelet, it was under the direction of Léon Carvalho and gave the premieres of Bizet's Les pêcheurs de perles
(1863), Berlioz's Les Troyens à Carthage
(1863), Gounod's Mireille
(1864), Bizet's La jolie fille de Perth
(1867), and Gounod's Roméo et Juliette
(1867). Carvalho also presented the first performance of Verdi's revised and expanded version of Macbeth
(in French) in 1865. Jules Pasdeloup took over as director in 1868 and gave the first Paris performances of Wagner's Rienzi
in 1869. The Théâtre Lyrique on the Place du Châtelet was nearly completely destroyed by fire on 21 May 1871 during the recapturing of Paris by the forces of the Adolphe Thiers at the end of Paris Commune, and the Théâtre Lyrique opera company went bankrupt not long after.
The theatre was rebuilt in 1874 on the same plans and was at first called the Théâtre Lyrique-Dramatique, but was soon renamed to Théâtre Historique, which it retained until 1879, when it became Théâtre des Nations. Victor Maurel produced a season of Italian opera at the Théâtre des Nations in 1884. It included on 1 February 1884 the first Paris performance of Massenet's Hérodiade, in the Italian version entitled Erodiade.
In 1887 the Opéra-Comique moved into the theatre after its previous home, the second Salle Favart, had been destroyed by fire. The name Théâtre Lyrique was restored, and the Opéra-Comique continued to perform in the theatre until 1898, when it returned to the newly built, third Salle Favart. During the company's sojourn on the Place du Châtelet, it presented several operas by Massenet, including the premieres of Esclarmonde (1889) and Sapho (1897), as well as the first Paris performances of Werther (6 January 1893) and La Navarraise (3 October 1895).
In 1899 the theatre was renamed Théâtre Sarah-Bernhardt after the renowned actress Sarah Bernhardt, who produced there from 1899 for nearly two decades. She opened with a revival of one of her great roles, Victorien Sardou's La Tosca. Other productions included a revival of Edmond Rostand's La Samaritaine and the premiere of his L'Aiglon in which she played Napoleon's son (the Duke of Reichstadt). Another well known breeches part was the title role of Marcel Schwob's adaptation of Hamlet. After her death in 1923 the theatre continued under her son Maurice for several years. After his death in 1928 the theatre kept the name Sarah Bernhardt until the Occupation of France by the Germans in World War II, when the name was changed to Théâtre de la Cité because of Bernhardt's Jewish ancestry.
Diaghilev's Ballets Russes presented several premieres at the Théâtre Sarah-Bernhardt, including Stravinsky's Apollon musagète (12 June 1928) and the revised Renard (21 May 1929; with choreography by Serge Lifar), and two ballets by Prokoviev, Le pas d'acier (27 May 1927) and Le Fils prodigue (21 May 1929). Stravinsky's dramatic oratory Oedipus Rex was also premiered here in 1927.
The theatre first acquired the name Théâtre de la Ville in 1968. Since the late 1970s, the institution, under the direction of Jean Mercure (1968–1985) then of Gérard Violette (1985–2008), produces a good quantity of dance shows being considered as a real international achievement in the field of contemporary dance. For example, the Théâtre de la Ville revealed and promoted famous choreographers like Pina Bausch, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, Jan Fabre, Sankai Juku, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Merce Cunningham or Carolyn Carlson amongst others.