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Royal Opera House

alias Royal Italian Opera, Theatre Royal in Covent Garden, Royal Opera
history of the theatresupplementtechnical dataHistoric equipment

Important events

(detail)7.12.1732 | Opening of the first theatre
Opened a revival of The Way of the World by William Congreve with a capacity of 1897 seats.
(detail)18.9.1809 | opening of the 2nd theatre
Opened with Macbeth, preceded by an occasional address spoken by John Philip Kemble, followed by The Quaker, a musical entertainment by Charles Dibdin with a capacity of 3000 visitors.
(detail)15.5.1858 | opening of the third theatre
Opened with Les Huguenots by Meyerbeer with a capacity of 2190 spectators.



The first Covent Garden Theatre, begun in 1731, was based partly on Vanbrugh's Haymarket Opera House, but with a more pronounced fan-shaped auditorium. 'All the spectators in the side boxes', complained a contemporary newspaper, 'were turned away from the stage.' In 1782, it was remodelled by making the sides parallel at right angles to the stage. Surviving plans show how this was surrounded by dressing-rooms (many with stoves), rehearsal rooms and rooms for the storage of scenery. But typically for England at this time, no attempt was made to provide an impressive exterior or comfortable circulation inside. It was entirely hemmed in by houses and shops, and access to its various parts was by dingy and depressing alleys. This theatre was replaced by one designed by Holland in 1792. Although more ambitious than its predecessor, it did not rival the same architect's Drury Lane, a few hundred yards away. The main entrance was still by an inconspicuous door in Covent Garden Piazza. Holland was an unlucky man. Both his London theatres burnt down within six months of each other (September 1808, February 1809). The task of rebuilding Covent Garden was entrusted to the young Robert Smirke, future architect of the British-Museum, then in the first flush of neo-Greek enthusiasm. His design gave London its first monumental public theatre, exposed on all four sides and with a dominating facade in Bow Street. The auditorium, for which Greek models provided no recipe, was conventional. Smirke introduced the Continental type of boxes, completely enclosed on all sides instead of being merely divided by low partitions, but these were not popular. Three tiers of boxes were surmounted by two galleries, the upper one being squeezed into the lunettes of the ceiling ('ranges of dens', says one contemporary account, 'sometimes tenanted by no unfit inhabitants'). In spite of, or perhaps because of, his ingenuity in finding room for 2,800 spectators, Smirke's auditorium was not a success. Various alterations had to be made, including raising the proscenium arch from segmental to semi-circular in order to give patrons at the back of the gallery a view of the stage, and it was almost totally rebuilt in 1847.


In 1846, the Covent Garden was trans­formed by an Italian engineer and ex-Carbonaro, Benedetto Albano, who entirely reconstructed the auditorium, inserting new lyre-shaped tiers of boxes and increasing the seating capacity to 2,243. This theatre was greatly admired, as much for its acoustics as for its rich decoration and efficient planning. But it was fated to last only ten years before being destroyed by the inevitable fire.
Its successor is the present opera house by E. M. Barry, opened in 1858.


In: Tidworth, Simon : Theatres: An Illustrated History. London 1973 p. 128, 148



Author: Simon Tidworth

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