What does Covent Garden mean to you? For some people the notion encompasses the thriving shopping district in its entirety, where there is yet another discovery to be made around each corner; for others it is the Piazza with bijou crafts and madcap street performances; but, for those who move in Arts circles, Covent Garden describes just one building: the Royal Opera House.
Theatre had thrived in London prior to the Civil War of the 17th Century, however, during Cromwell’s commonwealth, the joyless Puritans all-but obliterated the dramatic arts; anything that was considered “decorative” was looked upon with haughty scorn and the self-appointed guardians tore down even the meanest playhouse. Thankfully for the Arts, Cromwell’s treason was put to an end in 1660 and the restored Monarchy set about righting his many wrongs. Theatre was still viewed with suspicion, it was thought to be a medium for potential political opposition, so Charles II granted only two licenses to loyal Monarchists: Thomas Killigrew and William Davenant. Killigrew would go on to found Theatre Royal Drury Lane while Davenant’s patent was inherited by John Rich who, in 1732 commissioned architect Edward Shepherd to build a grand theatre on Bow Street. This was the beginning of what is now known as the Royal Opera House. The Crown- appointed duopoly of Drury Lane and Covent Garden would mould and adapt to society’s theatrical tastes for almost 200 years without rival.
The earliest surviving playbill for Rich’s Covent Garden Theatre advertises that the best seats were to be had on the stage itself, a practice which does not appear to have caught on. In 1741, Handel’s ‘Messiah’ had its first London performance here to universal acclaim. Subsequently Handel took up a residency until 1759. By
1767 another innovation was announced here; a recent invention that revolutionised stringed instruments by striking the strings with a series of hammers rather than plucking or bowing. JC Bach’s pianoforte performance was heralded as Covent Garden’s second great triumph.
Just as Covent Garden Theatre was gaining further momentum, on 20 August 1808, disaster struck when an almighty fire overcame the building. 23 firemen were killed tackling the blaze and many priceless Handel manuscripts also perished. By this time, the aesthetic, musical and financial benefits of theatre had become firmly established so funds were sought to rebuild Covent Garden in double-quick time. Within 13 months, the new House was ready for a grand reopening; modelled on the Temple of Minerva at the Acropolis, the foundation stone was laid by the future King George IV. His Highness was in attendance for the reopening gala performance of Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’, which was followed by a musical performance called ‘The Quaker’. Initial ticket prices were set prohibitively high (to recoup some of the building costs) but this was met with sustained rioting by disgruntled patrons who would hiss, cavort and jeer to disrupt the narrative. This carry-on lasted two months until the management caved in to pressure and reduced the cost of entry.
During this era, musical performances were given but not with any exclusivity, Covent Garden followed the zeitgeist and hosted less high-brow entertainments such as farce, pantomime and even boxing contests.
In the 1830s, as public tastes became more refined, a downturn in fortunes affected revenues so the theatre was rebranded as the Royal Italian Opera House in 1847. But this was not to last long; a second devastating fire would take hold in March 1856: during a harlequinade a spark ignited backstage and within hours, what had been colour and frenzy was again reduced to rubble and ash.
The third building is still recognisable today, with much of the original architecture surviving, despite wartime bombardment and periodic renovations (notably the grand reopening of 1999). The current Royal Opera House was built in 1858 by EM Barry to the classical architectural style. Although they look nothing alike, Barry also designed the neighbouring Floral Hall some years later employing cutting-edge engineering with glass and cast iron. The first performance was Meyerbeer’s ‘Les Huguenots’ and it was not to be long before a darling emerged as this building’s first superstar. The soprano Adelina Patti made her debut in 1861 and so wowed the audiences that she came back every year for the next 25. During this time, frequent forays were made into English operatic performances with varying success. Don Carlos (1867), Lohengrin (1875) and Aida (1876) all had their first English performances at Covent Garden but it was the German and Italian performances that were held in the highest regard. Another of many notable triumphs of this era was the first complete
performance of Wagner’s ‘Der Ring des Nibelungen’ conducted by Gustav Mahler. This was quite a coup for the then-management as it was the only time in his life that Mahler visited London, the great composer even spent the preceding months trying to learn English, with limited success.
During WWI, Covent Garden was requisitioned as a storage depot followed by the relative ignominy of being used as a dance hall during WWII, however, this in turn helped with morale during the “war effort”. Stationed GIs introduced their jazzy music style, which was enthusiastically embraced by local Peabody girls who had previously been accustomed to more austere ballroom dancing. Perhaps this is fitting given George Peabody’s American heritage and philanthropic spirit.
Today the building hosts The Royal Opera and The Royal Ballet with equal honours, the latter was granted its Warrant in 1956 and the former in 1968. Patrons today reflect the great and the good of international society, including statesmen, dignitaries and Her Majesty.
At the gala opening of December 1999 The Queen was reportedly thrilled by the finesse of Principal Darcey Bussell and the lusty Tenor of Placido Domingo, but, as any humble soloist will acknowledge, the real hard work is done behind the scenes. With ongoing developments at the House, including the Bow Street balcony and a new Linbury Theatre, we look forward together to many future triumphs.