A Fabulous Night At The Opera
London Coliseum, St Martin’s Lane, WC2N 4ES
I’ve been going to the London Coliseum since the 1970s when my mother used to buy us season tickets. We used to sit through endless Hans Werner Henze operas which were stronger on Marxist dialectic than melody. As the Hedonist I’m not really keen on ideological purity and remember being relieved when the stage hands went on strike and ended a performance mid-show…I’m sure Henze would have approved.
As an counterpoint to Henzian rigour In my lower league pop star days I did a photo shoot on the Coliseum roof for an album cover; I remember sneaking into the Gods to watch a mature but still resplendent Nureyev rehearse L’Après-Midi d’un Faune. It was unrestrained and sensuous. Much more my kind of thing…
So in that spirit I was delighted to be invited back to an exclusive event at English National Opera to review the new seasonal menu at the London Coliseum restaurant before enjoying a behind-the-scenes tour of ENO, followed by a night at the opera, watching the new production of La traviata. First up was the tour. I love going backstage at theatres – it gives you a completely different perspective on the production. We were told that The London Coliseum opened in 1904 as an Edwardian Playhouse showing the best in Variety Theatre. It was designed by Frank Matcham- who also had the nearby Hippodrome and London Palladium in his portfolio – and as the name implies the design displays Roman influences.
With its 2439 seats The London Coliseum is the largest theatre in the West End. I hadn’t realised that the famous glass dome was originally designed to be raised by a cantilever system to function as a primitive air conditioning system. Sadly this triumph of Edwardian engineering was scrapped when it was realised that punters in the most expensive seats were getting rained on!I couldn’t resist playing conductor when we went down into the orchestra pit!After the tour we were taken to the American Bar Restaurant for drinks and dinner. It’s a handsome Edwardian wood-panelled room offering pre-performance and interval dining. There is a very reasonable Spring Menu at £20 for two courses, £25 for three courses, but prices are very keen given the quality.We kicked things off with a crisp glass of Charles Heidsieck fizz moving on to a bottle each of the tropical unoaked notes of a Tanguero 2017 Chardonnay and a classic 2016 Malbec from Kaiken for the table. Starters included a pert and rather sexy smoked salmon & Cornish crab parcel (£9) filled with créme fraiche and caviar and with an orange reduction for added va va voom.Seared scallops (£8) were perfectly cooked, caramelised on the outside but still plump and juicy and coming with butternut squash puree, chorizo and parmesan crisp.Seared hake fillet (£19)- a very underused fish in the UK – was meaty and full-flavoured and was served with shrimp & mussels, pickled shallots, purple sprouting broccoli – a perfect spring dish.Fiona’s fillet of beef (£20) with celeriac puree, cavolo nero, king oyster, red wine and truffle jus was cooked to order with the beef being meltingly tender – and she LOVED the jus. Then it was time for the show! The London Coliseum has the widest opera stage in Europe and with a 40 strong backstage team so it really is the destination for grand opera.La Traviata tells the story of the love affair between the courtesan (think upper-class hooker…) Violetta, played by clear-voiced Irish soprano Claudia Boyle and a naive romantic, Alfredo Germont, with mellifluous South African singer Lukhanyo Moyake making his UK debut in the role. Alfredo’s father begs the ailing Violetta to leave Alfredo to avoid his family being shamed.The opening act is visually stunning with ENO Artistic Director Daniel Kramer creating a decadent party scene interlaced with moments of intimate romance. Verdi’s score is one of the most loved in the operatic repertoire and conductor Leo McFall, making his ENO debut, did a fine job marshalling the award-winning ENO Chorus and Orchestra. And then it was time to return to the restaurant for dessert!Banana & pecan cheesecake came with luscious rum macerated golden raisins (£7). and a deliciously dark rich chocolate mousse was given a bit of crunch by maple rice cake, walnut brittle and sweetness by caramelised plum (£7).
The final tragic scene of La traviata is one of the most iconic moments in opera. Performing the role of the father Giorgio Germont is Alan Opie, celebrating 50 years since he first sang with ENO, and the playing out of the drama of reconciliation and loss saw between the three protagonists saw them all come into their own both vocally and dramatically. The subdued staging added to the emotion.
Grand opera is all about spectacle, emotion and high drama and the ENO’s production has all three in spades. If you have never been to the opera before the ENO’s productions are a great introduction and with a visit to the restaurant you have one of London’s most perfect nights out.