The one thing you can say about the Royal Opera House in London is that it never stands still. Originally opened in 1732, the fine classical portico and entrance leading to the richly-decorated auditorium is in fact the third building on the site, opened in 1858, the previous two having burnt down as was common with theatres before the invention of electricity. Then, at the end of the 20th century the great soaring cast iron and glass Floral Hall (renamed the Paul Hamlyn Hall) from the old Covent Garden Market was brought into use and, apart from the historic spaces which were retained, the entire complex was rebuilt to designs by Dixon Jones BDP, in doing so providing an architectural backcloth and shopping arcade to that corner of the Covent Garden Piazza.
In 2015, the builders moved in again, this time for the ‘Open Up Project’ and, while productions continued in the main auditorium, different areas around it were closed for building works at different times, with refurbishment taking place in spaces such as the Paul Hamlyn Hall, the top floor restaurant, the shop, the Auditorium Bar and the terrace overlooking the market buildings.
Over the autumn and winter, the new project designed by Stanton Williams has been opened to the public, the new and refurbished areas providing a contemporary architectural counterbalance to the original rich interiors. When first opened, the new design of the new spaces felt a little bland with their limited palate of neutral colours, even though there were displays of costumes, drawings and other items to add some life. As the ROH has become used to using the spaces, they have softened them a little and the huge red apple which appeared at Christmas – and made such a difference – seems to be there for a while yet.
The project includes a spacious new entrance underneath the Paul Hamlyn Hall which now has a new outdoor from terrace and a new staircase, with a touch of decadence. It works splendidly at night, continuing the transparency of the cast iron market building above.
The new Linbury Theatre is a masterpiece, providing an additional space for smaller, more intimate performances, other events and for screenings of productions from the main auditorium at more affordable prices.
One of the key aims has been to open up the building and its facilities to the public throughout the day, not just when there is a performance on, at which it is so effective that you wonder why it was not done before. London now has a new place for people to meet, sit, relax and have refreshments.