03/20/2012 07:18 am ET Updated May 20, 2012

The Best Way To See A Historic Theater: Handel At Versailles (PHOTOS)

I've long maintained that, even for an atheist, the best way to see a church is to attend a service there. Indeed, some churches can be viewed only during services; here I think of the Chapels Royal at London's St. James's Palace. Moreover, these buildings were built as places of worship, and they are at their best when functioning, especially when the choir is good and the sermon brief (as is often the case in the Anglican sphere).

Similarly, if you want to get a good sense of a historic theater at work, you ought to see a performance rather than signing up for the half-hour tour. When Jackie and I were thinking about our March trip to London and Paris, we used the excellent music websites and and found a concert performance of Handel's 1735 opera Ariodante to be given at the Opéra Royal in the Château de Versailles -- with our favorite performers to boot (mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato and conductor Alan Curtis). The prospect was exciting enough to influence the dates of our train travel down from London -- if we could get tickets: it is a blessedly small theater of 700-odd seats that sell out quickly.

We were lucky. I logged on to the Versailles website (which lists all coming performances) and was able to buy two of the few remaining tickets at €100 ($130) apiece. Not only did we hear a work of the theater's own era (more or less: construction began just a few years after the composer's death), but we heard it played on period instruments by specialists in the Baroque style: the Italy-based ensemble Il Complesso Barocco, founded by Mr. Curtis in 1992. Plus, our seats (in a box not far from the stage) gave us a good view of our fellow audience members, which added its own kind of 18th-century authenticity: By all accounts, people-watching was an important part of the evening's entertainment in those times (as distinct from today, when nobody would ever dream of checking out anyone else's outfit).

We arrived at the château (after stumbling along roughly cobbled sidewalks; do NOT wear your Louboutins) to see that Ms. DiDonato was unwell and had been obliged to cancel her appearance. But to everyone's great relief she was replaced by the excellent English mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly.

Over the years we've come to love small theaters, and to hear Ms. Connolly and her amazing colleagues, including soprano Karina Gauvin and contralto Marie-Nicole Lemieux, in these intimate surroundings was to hear them anew. (You can hear them- - but with Ms. DiDonato in the title role -- at home, too, on an addictive Virgin Classics recording of the opera.)

The theater has been restored, not re-imagined. There's elaborate gilded plasterwork; wall and ceiling paintings; baroque balustrades; and acres of faux marble. The latter is painted to be seen from a distance and can look coarse close up (i.e. six inches behind your seat). During the intermission we walked into one of the royal boxes, which differ little from the others apart from the presence of gilt grilles that can be closed for the sake of privacy. Perhaps most interesting of all, the lighting is at approximately 18th-century candle-lit levels, including in the unadorned corridors that take you to the auditorium.

Seeing a performance rather than merely viewing the theater helped us understand the space and its function. And, frankly, we felt special visiting the château with a purpose -- and after closing time -- rather than just ambling through to gawk at the chandeliers: almost as if we belonged there, which is preposterous in more ways than I can even begin to list.

On a practical note, today's Versailles is basically a one-horse suburban town: it is not easy to find something decent to eat after a show, especially when it ends at a quarter to midnight, as Ariodante atypically did: most performances end far earlier. Happily, the Brasserie du Théâtre (part of the Flo group of old-timey brasseries) is a seven-minute walk from the château and takes reservations (including on-line) for as late as 11:30, though the staff was flexible enough to accept an open-ended post-theater reservation and could not have been more welcoming when we arrived at nearly 12 o'clock. You might want to verify this, possibly through your hotel's concierge, before assuming they'll be willing to feed you that late. Supper was welcome and very good: my grilled andouillette (a sausage made mostly of veal guts) was one of the nicest I've had, and our dessert (floating island) was terrific, with a little pool of caramel at the bottom of the bowl under all the vanilla custard.

To avoid a tiresome trek back to Paris, we stayed the night at the luxurious Trianon Palace hotel, also right near the château. Through, we'd booked a comfortable but not gorgeous double room for $240, which was money well spent: It's a lovely hotel, and the service (especially on the part of the concierge team) was particularly fine.

Of course, we took advantage of being in Versailles to spend the next morning at the château and its gardens, noting that the Opera House was off limits with a smidgeon of been-there-done-that smugness.

Handel at Versailles: 18th-Century Opera in an 18th-Century Theater