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.
Work on a new theatre began immediately to designs by Robert Smirke. The Prince of Wales laid the foundation stone on the last day of 1808 and the theatre opened just over eight months later with a performance of Shakespeare’s Macbeth starring the renowned brother and sister team of John Philip Kemble and Sarah Siddons. To help recoup the cost of the build, the management (including Kemble and Siddons) raised seat prices, a decision that proved so unpopular that audiences kept rioting until the old prices were restored.
In 1843, the Theatres Act ended the patent theatres’ monopoly of drama and the competition for audiences intensified. Three years later, Covent Garden scored a notable coup when the gifted composer and conductor Michael Costa joined the theatre from Her Majesty’s in the Haymarket, bringing most of his company of singers with him. Following the remodelling of the auditorium, the theatre reopened as the Royal Italian Opera in April 1847 with a performance of Rossini’s Semiramide.
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