Last Saturday I managed to bag a small ambition that I had wanted to do for decades, experience a real life opera and I managed to do so in one of the very finest venues in the world, the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, London.
I always like live theatre but for all sorts of reasons have only been 5 or 6 times in the flesh and going to the opera is another level, not least because many of the tickets can be hundreds of pounds which aside from the cost can be a little risky when one has no idea whether going to the opera is enjoyable.
The magnificent Royal Opera House, with its grand classical portico fronting Bow Street, is actually the third theatre built on the Covent Garden site. Both the previous theatres were destroyed by fire, a serious hazard in the era before electricity.
Actor-manager John Rich built the first Theatre Royal, Covent Garden with the fortune he had made from the huge success of The Beggar’s Opera. At that time, under the terms of a Royal Patent, Covent Garden was only one of two theatres permitted to perform drama in the capital. The other patent theatre was the nearby Theatre Royal Drury Lane, and a keen rivalry soon developed between them.
The first important musical works to be heard at the theatre were by Handel, who, from 1735 until his death in 1759, had close links with Covent Garden both as composer and organist. Many of his operas and oratorios, including Alcina and Semele, were first performed there, and he left his theatre organ to John Rich. Extensive rebuilding work took place in 1787 and 1792, but in 1808 the theatre was completely destroyed by fire with the loss of twenty-three fireman as the building collapsed.
On 5 March 1856 disaster struck again: for the second time the theatre was completely destroyed by fire. Work on the third and present theatre eventually started in 1857 to designs by E.M. Barry and the new building opened in May 1858 with a performance of Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots. Barry also designed the striking glass and iron Floral Hall, intended as a flower market but also hosting the occasional ball.
In 1892, with the repertoire broadening, the theatre was renamed the Royal Opera House. Winter and summer seasons of opera and ballet were given and between seasons the theatre was either closed or used for film shows, dancing, cabaret and lectures. During the Great War the theatre became a furniture repository and during the Second World War a Mecca Dance Hall. That’s how it might have remained if the music publishers Boosey and Hawkes hadn’t acquired the lease. David Webster was appointed General Administrator and the Sadler’s Wells Ballet, under Ninette de Valois, was invited to become the resident ballet company.
The Opera House reopened on 20 February 1946 with a gala performance of The Sleeping Beauty with Margot Fonteyn as Aurora. With no suitable opera company able to take up residence, Webster and music director Karl Rankl began to build a company from scratch. In December 1946 the embryo Covent Garden Opera teamed up with the ballet in a production of Purcell’s The Fairy Queen choreographed by Frederick Ashton; the following January saw the company’s first performance of Carmen. Both companies were eventually awarded Royal Charters: the Royal Ballet in 1956, the Royal Opera in 1968.
By the 1980s it was pretty clear that the facilities at The Royal Opera House were inadequate for carrying the two companies forward into the 21st century. Plans for a major development of the theatre were revealed in 1984, with the architect Jeremy Dixon, in collaboration with Bill Jack of Building Design Partnership (BDP), winning the competition to design the project. However, it was only after the creation of the National Lottery that the Opera House was awarded £58.5m towards re-building costs. Work started in 1996 with a farewell gala taking place in the ‘old’ house in July 1997.
Three years later, at total cost of £178m, the theatre had been utterly transformed. Brand new technical and rehearsal facilities were built; a smaller auditorium, the Linbury Studio, was created for smaller and more experimental productions, while the existing auditorium and foyers were fully refurbished. As well as all this, the virtually derelict Floral Hall was completely rebuilt and turned into a thrilling public arena, with bars and eating spaces in spectacular surroundings. Above all, the creation of new spaces has integrated the theatre more fully into its surrounding environment and made visiting a far more enjoyable experience.
It is no exaggeration to say that I have walked around the outside of the Royal Opera House thousands of times but I’d never been inside before but I managed to find a pair of tickets that would normally cost £225 each for just £20. Even better I had bagged myself the very best seats in the Grand Tier which many believe to be the optimum seats in the house.
Around 2,600 people can fit in for any given performance and given it is the opera, I dressed up a little. I know lots of people only like to go to certain places and would discount going to places with a reputation for a very rich clientele and indeed a very poor one but I’ve always enjoyed and been comfortable mixing with people from all backgrounds and would think it really rather boring to limit oneself in that way.
I went to see La Traviata by Verdi, one of the most renowned operas but for those of you who have no idea what it is about (just as I didn’t a week ago), here is the synopsis.
At a party she is hosting, the courtesan Violetta Valéry is introduced to young Alfredo Germont. Violetta suddenly feels ill but assures her guests that she is fine. Alfredo, left alone with Violetta, confesses that he has loved her from afar for a year. She initially dismisses him, but is touched by his sincerity. After Alfredo and the other party guests leave, Violetta reflects on her feelings for him and on what life would be like if she accepted his love. But she cuts short her fantasy and rededicates herself to the pursuit of pleasure.
Act II/Scene 1
For three months, Violetta and Alfredo have been living together in the country. Alfredo learns that Violetta has been selling her possessions in order to pay their expenses, so he leaves for Paris to make other financial arrangements. Germont, Alfredo’s father, unexpectedly visits, demanding that Violetta leave Alfredo so that his sister’s impending marriage will not be threatened by scandal. Violetta first objects but finally, in spite of her love for Alfredo, promises to renounce him forever. She writes Alfredo a letter ending their relationship, but before she can depart, Alfredo returns and is confused by her agitated state. After Violetta leaves, he reads her letter. Germont returns and tries to comfort his son, but Alfredo decides to confront Violetta.
Act II/Scene 2
At a soiree given by Violetta’s friend Flora Bervoix, the guests are surprised by Alfredo’s arrival. Violetta soon appears with Baron Douphol, her new lover. Alfredo gambles with the gentlemen, pretending not to notice Violetta, who is alarmed by his belligerent behaviour. Fearing for his safety, Violetta begs Alfredo to leave, but he demands that she leave with him. When Violetta refuses, Alfredo summons the other guests and publicly humiliates Violetta. Germont arrives and denounces his son’s behaviour. The Baron challenges Alfredo to a duel.
Violetta is now gravely ill, and Doctor Grenvil confides to Annina, her servant, that Violetta will not live much longer. Violetta rereads a letter from Germont informing her that Alfredo fled after wounding the Baron in the duel, but that he now knows of her sacrifice and is hurrying to her side. Alfredo arrives, begging Violetta’s forgiveness. The lovers dream of resuming their life together, but fate intervenes.
I have to say that I enjoyed it immensely from the start to the end even though some more regular opera goers mentioned it was a little on the long side, that didn’t bother me in the slightest… I do after all enjoy 5 day long cricket matches!
The live orchestra was fantastic but the performances of those on stage were a sight to behold and indeed to listen to. I only knew one song from La Traviata, Brindisi but without knowing a thing about what was about to unfold, my friend both enjoyed immensely. It even made us laugh at one point too.
As the performance went on for around 3 hours 20 minutes, there were some lengthy intermissions, I’m guessing as some people have difficulty sitting for so long and paying attention to something that may be in a foreign language or perhaps 2,600 customers all eager for food and drinks makes for a lucrative sales opportunity not to be missed!
As it happens we had a glass of champagne in the wonderful glass and wrought iron looking room in my photo above though as the weather was nice, took them out to the balcony and looked down on the beautiful streets of Covent Garden below looking down on people, perhaps like myself having spent decades longing to go inside.
I can’t wait to find an excuse and indeed the funding to go again! In the meantime if you’d like a guided walking tour around some of the most historic theatres in the West End than check out my tour West End Theatre Walking Tour