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There’s no more extravagant stage experience than the opera and, beginner or buff, there’s something for everyone in London this season – not to mention some tasty pre-/post-theatre dining options within soprano-shouting distance of the action…
To an outsider, the world of opera can seem as remote – and as expensive to reach – as the planet Jupiter. Those ticket prices! The incomprehensible plots! The plus-size consumptives! It’s just absurd nonsense for toffs in tiaras, right? Wrong! Any operatic novice who’s fought past those cheap clichés and actually gone to see a lyric drama will have found out how disturbing, how spine-melting, and even how mind-altering a great night out at the opera can be.
And – hold your breath – it can be affordable, too: the cheapest seats at the Royal Opera start at just £8.
So what’s on offer? In the coming London season you can see Elizabeth I in her undergarments at Covent Garden; you can watch a musical version of the life of Walt Disney at English National Opera; and you can meet a mysterious, blasphemous madonna-whore at Opera Holland Park. And that’s just the icing on the operatic cake. There’s plenty of murder, incest, comedy, torture, disguise and despair – the basic fodder of opera, in fact – in the rest of the season too.
The cherry on the icing is undoubtedly The Royal Opera, which bags the greatest international stars, has the best orchestra and is in fine fettle at the moment. The legendary singer Plácido Domingo, a tenor who now frequently appears as a baritone, takes the title role in a new staging of Verdi’s Nabucco from 15 April onwards. This is a rollicking story of a Biblical king who tries to squash the Israelites with some help from his ballsy daughter Abigaille – but ultimately he goes mad and she kills herself. Later, in May and June, two of the top coloratura singers in the world join forces for a new production of Rossini’s tragi-comedy La Donna del Lago, set in the Scottish highlands – Juan Diego Flórez and Joyce DiDonato will be singing more speedily than ever in the two main roles.
To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Benjamin Britten this year, the Royal Opera has invited celebrated director Richard Jones to bring his quirky magic to Britten’s Gloriana in June and July. Focusing on the fraught romantic and political relationship between Elizabeth I and Essex, the piece had its world premiere 60 years ago during the coronation celebrations of 1953. The scene in which Essex surprises Elizabeth by bursting into her bedroom, and finds her looking dishevelled, haggard and old, sizzles with vanity, anger and desire.
Three hot-ticket superstars are coming up in revivals too. Dark and soulful tenor Jonas Kaufmann sings the demanding title role of Verdi’s Don Carlo in May; and Angela Gheorghiu and heart-throb du jour Vittorio Grigolo star in Covent Garden’s ravishing and bittersweet production of Puccini’s operetta La Rondine (pictured, above right) in July.
After the summer break, the autumn’s first must-see is a new production of Verdi’s Les Vêpres Siciliennes. Director Stefan Herheim, known abroad for his lavish stagings, promises to create something truly grand from a grand opéra about freedom-fighting Sicilians and their battles with French occupiers. And a dream cast assembles for a new staging of Wagner’s Parsifal in November, conducted by the Royal Opera’s top-notch music director Tony Pappano.
Meanwhile, nearby at the Coliseum (pictured), English National Opera has two new productions to tempt opera fans. In June, you can see Philip Glass’s The Perfect American, a mythical account of the final years of Walt Disney and his imaginary meetings with Abraham Lincoln and Andy Warhol: Christopher Purves takes the title role, and Phelim McDermott directs. Earlier in May there’s Wozzeck, Alban Berg’s haunting 1925 masterpiece about a troubled soldier who murders his unfaithful wife: Carrie Cracknell makes her opera-directing debut, and Edward Gardner conducts.
Every summer, Opera Holland Park puts on six new productions under a tiered canopy in leafy Holland Park. They’ve developed a reputation for unearthing forgotten masterpieces, and this year the surprise offering is Ermanno Wolf-Ferrari’s steamy sex’n’religion shocker I Gioielli della Madonna (The Jewels of the Madonna) of 1911. It includes a scene in which a man wins the favours of his tarty foster-sister by offering her some jewels stolen from a religious statue: she sees herself in them, imagines herself as the Holy Virgin, and her hatred of him momentarily transforms into lust. Add a gangster boyfriend, and you’ve got all the ingredients for a heady night of Freudian shenanigans.
The OHP season also includes new productions of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, starring the golden-voiced Anne-Sophie Duprels; Bizet’s crowd-pleaser Les Pêcheurs de Perles (The Pearl Fishers); a double-bill of Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci; and one of the most touching comedies in the repertoire, Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore (The Elixir of Love).
Lust, betrayal, disguise, laughs, excess, great melodies, soaring passions… Whether you’re an operatic newbie or a battle-hardened buff, there’s something for everyone in the months ahead. And if you need a feast for your stomach before you satisfy your eyes and ears, here's Square Meal's guide to the finest nearby dining spots.
Looking for a bite before heading to the Coliseum or the Royal Opera House? Read on for our pick of restaurants to visit pre- or post-show…
This dependable seafood institution is well-versed in ensuring guests are fed in plenty of time for shows – they know the start times of everything showing in the West End. From the comfort of its wood-panelled dining rooms to its faultless renditions of favourite fish dishes, J Sheekey simply exudes class. For those craving shellfish, head to J Sheekey Oyster Bar next door.
With its portraits of various noted thespians crowding the exposed brick walls and the piano gently tinkling away in the background, Joe Allen’s theatrical affinity is patently clear. This old-timer restaurant boasts an easy-going Manhattan vibe and an American/European menu that includes barbecue spare ribs, côte de boeuf and pecan pie. A pre-theatre deal offers two/three courses for £16/19.50.
Just a short stroll to the Coliseum, this spacious Parisian-style brasserie offers a buzzy dining room and a menu of classic French dishes without any ‘grande époque’ stylings. A popular pre-theatre deal delivers the goods, with robust Gallic staples such as farmhouse terrine, beef bourguignon and cassoulet.
The aptly named Opera Tavern’s convenient location and sprightly tapas menu make this venue perfect for a convivial pre-theatre bite, preferably at its handsome Edwardian bar. Expect impeccably sourced charcuterie and cheeses, alongside a regularly changing menu that might yield moreish Gorgonzola and date croquetas, char-grilled octopus, and juicy pork belly, plus specialities from the robata grill.
Perennial favourite Terroirs serves faultless seasonal French food in double-quick time, so its mix of earthy sharing dishes, charcuterie and cheeses is ideal to grab on the hop. Among the star turns are gloriously fatty duck rillettes and daily specials such as pork chop with celeriac purée, pickled girolles and chestnuts – not forgetting crêpes smothered in salted-butter caramel.
As ‘fast’ food goes, sushi is ideal fare for opera-goers who are tight for time. Watatsumi’s proficient sushi bar delivers fresh examples of yellowtail nigiri, king-crab sashimi, spicy salmon maki rolls and the like. Elsewhere, the menu offers renditions of classy Japanese dishes, and there’s a dependable theatre menu that offers two/three courses plus a glass of wine for £19.50/25.50.
This feature was published in the spring 2013 issue of Square Meal Lifestyle.