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The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Bow Street, London

Formerly - Theatre Royal in Covent Garden / Theatre Royal, Covent Garden /
Royal Italian Opera / Royal English Opera.

Introduction - First Theatre - Second Theatre - Third and Present Theatre

The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, in October 2006. - Photo M.L.

Above - The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, in October 2006.

 

 

See London's West End TheatresSee Theatreland MapsThe Royal Opera House in Covent Garden that we know today was designed by Sir Edward M. Barry and constructed by Frederick Gye. It opened as the Royal Italian Opera House on the 15th of May 1858 with a production of 'Les Huguenots' by Meyerbeer.

The present building is actually the third Theatre to have been constructed on the site since 1732. Details of all the Theatres on the site follows, and there is more information on the present Opera House below.

 

First Theatre 1732 - 1809

The First Theatre on the site opened as the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden on the 7th of December 1732 with 'The Way of the World' by William Congeve. This was a 'Patent Theatre' as granted to Sir William Devenant by Charles II, but this second Patent (the first was granted to the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane) actually originally applied to the Duke's Theatre in Lincoln's Inn and only ended up with the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden after the Patent was eventually handed down to John Rich, who began building the Covent Garden Theatre in March of 1731.

The Theatre was built on land leased to John Rich from the Duke of Bedford and designed by James Shepherd. The interior being decorated by the Italian Artist, Amiconi, with a capacity of 1,897. Handel arrived here in 1734 and produced many Operas and Ballets. David Garrick appeared here in 1746, fresh from Drury Lane, and it was in this Theatre that a new invention called the 'Piano Forte' was first heard in 1767. 'She Stoops To Conquer' had its first performance here in 1775, and the first production of Sheridan's 'The Rivals' was produced at the Theatre in 1775.

The Theatre was reconstructed in 1784, and in 1788 the first ever production of the Pantomime 'Alladin' was performed here. The Theatre was reconstructed again, almost completely this time, in 1792 at a cost of £25,000, a huge sum at the time, but sadly, on the 20th of September 1808 the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, burnt down, taking with it Handel's own Organ and many of his manuscripts.

 

Second Theatre 1809 - 1858

Article on the new Royal Box at the Royal Italian Opera, Covent Garden, from the Illustrated London News of July 29th 1848. Click for full article and enlarged image.The Second Theatre on the site had its foundation stone laid by the Prince of Wales on December the 31st 1808, the same year that the first Theatre had burnt down. It was designed by the architect Robert Smirke and reportedly cost the vast sum of £150,000 to build. Robert Smirke also designed the main structure and facade of the British Museum, the building now known as Canada House, the east wing of Somerset House, and many other prominent London buildings, although this was his only Theatre. It was a little smaller than the first Theatre but held a lot more people, 3000 in all. The new Theatre opened on the 18th of September 1809 with a production of Shakespeare's 'Macbeth'.

Right - An article on the new Royal Box at the Royal Italian Opera, Covent Garden, from the Illustrated London News of July 29th 1848. Click for full article and enlarged image.

Scene from The New Ballet of "Les Amazons," At Covent Garden Theatre - From The Illustrated London News of October 14th 1848. Click to see article and enlarged image.The Theatre was reconstructed in 1847 at a cost of £27,000 by Benedict Albano and reopened on the 6th of April that year as the Royal Italian Opera House, but tragedy struck on the 5th of March 1856 when the Theatre was again destroyed by fire.

Left - A Scene from The New Ballet of "Les Amazons," At Covent Garden Theatre - From The Illustrated London News of October 14th 1848. Click to see article and enlarged image.

 

Third and Present Theatre 1858 - Present

The Royal Oera House, Covent Garden, looking down Bow Street towards the Strand in October 2006 - Photo M.L.The Third and Present Theatre on the site was designed by Sir Edward M. Barry and built by Frederick Gye in just six months, incorporating the statues and reliefs from the previous building.

This Theatre, on a slightly enlarged site, was positioned at a new angle, East West rather than North South as before, and opened as the Royal Italian Opera House on the 15th of May 1858 with a production of 'Les Huguenots' by Meyerbeer.

Right - The Royal Oera House, Covent Garden, looking down Bow Street towards the Strand in October 2006 - Photo M.L.

Apart from some reconstruction of the auditorium over the years, involving removing the Amphitheater boxes and removing most of the boxes in two tiers, the Theatre remains in much the same form as when it opened. Originally the Theatre held 1,897 but today the capacity is 2,268.

 

A 1970s / 80s Seating Plan for the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

Above - A 1970s / 80s Seating Plan for the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

 

Programme for 'Grand Circus' at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden in 1890 - Click to see entire Programme enlarged.The Theatre was extended rearwards in 1933 to house new dressing rooms and offices, and then again in 1982 when, after the entire plot of land was acquired from the sell off of Covent Garden Market in the 1970s, the building was extended even furthur back towards James Street.

Floral Street elevation of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, showing the bridge over the street to more offices, and the stage door.Right - A Programme for 'Grand Circus' at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden in 1890 - Click to see entire Programme enlarged.

In 1999 a major injection of cash in the form of Lottery funding of £50m gave the Theatre the chance to move into the 21st century in a big way. The building now incorporates the Floral Hall, next door, and its footprint now extends to Bow Street, Russell Street, the Piazza, James Street and Floral Street.

Left - The Floral Street elevation of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, showing the bridge over the street to more offices, and the stage door.

The Auditorium was completely restored and looks absolutely fantastic, like walking into a brand new Victorian Theatre. The stalls were re-raked to accommodate the new stage, and the stage itself and fly tower were completely demolished and rebuilt. A new box office was added, along with a cafe, restaurant, and shops. And a new rehearsal space large enough to house complete sets was added next door with the added advantage of becoming a second performance space too.

 

The third Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, Circa 1897, (now the Royal Opera House) - Courtesy Peter Williams  - Click to Enlarge

Above - The Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, and Floral Hall, looking up Bow Street Circa 1897 - From "The Queen's London" Part 5 of 12 (32 Photographic Views for 6d) by Cassell & Company, Circa 1897 - Courtesy Peter Williams - Compare this view with the same view in 2006 below. - Click to Enlarge.

The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, and Floral Hall, looking up Bow Street in October 2006 - Photo M.L. - Click to Enlarge

Above - The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, and Floral Hall, looking up Bow Street in October 2006 - Photo M.L. - Compare this view with the same view in 1897 above. - Click to Enlarge.

 

The wonderful restored auditorium of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

Above - The wonderful restored auditorium of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

The wonderful restored auditorium of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

Above - The wonderful restored auditorium of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

 

A visit to this vast Opera House and its new adjoining facilities is an absolute must for anyone interested in Theatre architecture, let alone, lovers of Opera and Ballet. It really is the finest Theatre in the country and although the recent lottery funding caused a great deal of discussion on whether this was money well spent on such a building, I can't believe that anyone who walked into it's magnificent auditorium today could possibly hold onto that view.

You may also like to visit the The Royal Opera House Collections Online.

The new Bow Street additions to the Royal Opera House which were completed in 1999, here photographed in October 2006 M.L.

Above - The new Bow Street additions to the Royal Opera House which were completed in 1999, here photographed in October 2006 M.L.

 

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