The Monte Carlo Opera Orchestra is the oldest permanently established orchestra in the French-speaking world, with a rich history of important premieres and a reputation for continuing high quality under a succession of great conductors.
Monte Carlo is the main town in Monaco, a small enclave on the French Riviera which has held on to its political identity since before the twelfth century. The Grimaldi family (the Guelphs) won its independence from the court of Genoa in the thirteenth century and has ruled the country, a principality, since then. However, there are long periods in its history when it was dominated or was a protectorate of various powers, most notably the House of Savoy, the Dukes of Milan, Spain, the Count of Provence, and France. The history of music there is primarily a function of who exercised power there, and the taste of the local ruler.
In 1641, Prince Honoré II passed from Spanish to French protection and as a result of his visits to Versailles brought in French dancing-masters and musicians. Les entretiens de Diane et d'Apollon (1654), a court ballet, is the first known Monagasque classical work. Prince Antoine I (reigned 1701-1731), a pupil of Lully, particularly encouraged music.
Monte Carlo itself was founded in 1858 in response to a favorable shift in the region's economy and quickly became a leading resort destination. Prince Florestan authorized the opening of the famous Casino in 1862 and adopted a policy of supporting arts and entertainment en support of the tourist trade.
The nation's permanent orchestra was founded in 1863 to give concerts in the Casino. A concert hall was built in 1872. The principality built its magnificent opera house, the Palais Garnier (designed by the same architect as the Paris Opéra's venerable house) in 1879, and the orchestra was brought in to serve at its productions. Over the years its chief conductors have included such great names as Paul Paray (1928-1944), Louis Frémaux (1956-1965), Lovro von Matacic, Igor Markevitch, and Lawrence Foster, appointed in 1980 and to be succeeded by Gianluigi Gelmetti. Its list of guest conductors is star-studded, including Richard Strauss, Arturo Toscanini, Lorin Maazel, Leonard Bernstein, and many others.
Over forty-five operas have been premiered there, including Ravel's L'Enfant et les Sortiléges, Saint-Saëns' Hélène, the first staged production of Berlioz' Le Damnation de Faust, Puccini's La Rondine, and Fauré's Pénélope, as well as the first French-language staging of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde.
From before World War I until the 1930s, the Monte Carlo Opera was also the site of the Ballets Russe de Monte Carlo, so that the orchestra also participated in the creation of some of the greatest works in the twentieth-century ballet repertory. Over the years it produced many great recordings.
The orchestra was officially named the "National Orchestra of the Monte Carlo Opera House" in 1953, and renamed the "Monte Carlo Philharmonic Orchestra" in 1979. (It is still often referred to as the "Monte Carlo Opera Orchestra" when discussed in connection with its playing for the opera house stage, including the opera and the Monte Carlo Ballet (which was revived by Princess Caroline in memory of her mother, Princess Grace, whose dream it was to restore that tradition).
The orchestra comprises eighty-seven members and works a full schedule. Its recordings include several honored by many major recording prizes.