28 January 2009

It ain't over till the fat lady cycles home

I've been to both the big London opera houses in the last few days: English National Opera last Saturday night (for the Magic Flute, and the Royal Opera House last night (for Korngold's Die tote Stadt).

There's something unforgettable about the rush of cycling home on a high after an evening of gorgeous music, superbly sung and enticingly staged.

On the other hand, getting on your bike can be a welcome relief after three hours of tedious Germanic shrieking.

Here's a quick compare-and-contrast of the most important aspects for the cyclist: 1. Cycle parking; 2. Proximity of beer; 3. Musical quality.

Wandering round the foyer in casual clothes toting panniers is not a problem at ENO, which is unpretentious - people generally wear what they would to Pizza Express. At ROH there are more posh frocks and designer suits, and people you've seen on the telly, and a notable absence of reflective jackets or cycling mitts. Turn up there in lycra longs and you might feel a few raised eyebrows burning a hole in your back.

Obviously, you won't be drinking in either of the opera house bars, unless you urgently need some small change in return for a twenty quid note and two glasses of Chilean Cab Sauv, or unless someone else is paying.

Both places do cheap restricted-view/last-minute deals (check their websites) though snagging these requires time, luck and patience.

As to which is 'better', a quick straw poll of star ratings on the reviews site www.musicalcriticism.com suggests that pretty much everything at either place seems to get between three and four out of five (which confirms my experiences). ROH is glitzier, but you can't say one automatically outsings the other.

Productions can be more lavish (though not necessarily more inventive) at ROH. At ENO's Magic Flute for example, they have trained pigeons; at ROH's recent Carmen, Escamillo entered on a real horse. Mind you, he did look pretty damn nervous, and liable to do something that needed clearing up any minute. So did the horse.

English National Opera (ENO)
Coliseum, by Trafalgar Square (right)
Cycle parking Nothing right by entrance. Sheffield stands 100m south of entrance, but often full. Lots of Sheffield racks round the north side, in Mays Court, 150m away, well used but always space.
Drinking The Chandos, a few doors south on the corner, is woody, well-patronised, and does Sam Smith's bitter for £1.88 a pint (not an offer, but a regular deal). It's perfectly possible, indeed recommended, to have a pint here during the interval. After the show, go up bizarre Brydges Place, perhaps London's narrowest alley, directly south of the entrance. On the right halfway along is The Harp, a pocket-size pub where the orchestra hang out. You can tell they're orchestra because they're not talking about music.
Music All performances in English (with surtitles). Generally more 'up-and-coming' (ie younger, slimmer, non-diva) singers than ROH; more fanciable sopranos and tenors. Prices £10-£85ish.

Royal Opera House (ROH)
Covent Garden (right)
Cycle parking Sheffield racks right opposite main entrance. More racks nearby in Bow St.
Drinking Wellington at bottom of Bow St is usual London prices. Has outside tables.
Music All performances in original language (with surtitles in English). Generally older, fatter singers than ENO; more Premiership-style international big names (ie expensive foreign imports who often dazzle but sometimes pull out mysteriously). Prices £10-£120ish.

At ROH last night, I was pleased to find two other normal-looking cyclists locking up at the same time as me on their way in to the opera. As we did so, a chap told us to park somewhere else because that area, right in front of the entrance, is prone to theft; well-intentioned advice no doubt, but we ignored him, partly because we had two chunky locks each, and partly because he was wearing a red bowler hand and sparkly waistcoast. I hope his excuse was being a street entertainer.

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