Here at whatsonstage.com/opera we’re always interested in unusual approaches to the art-form (well, almost always) so we were easily lured out for an evening of gastronomy and entertainment.
The venture, run by restaurateur John-Paul Maurel (who has two similar set-ups in Paris), began life 18 months ago in Mark Lane in the City. Bel Canto is basically an opera-themed restaurant, located now in the aptly-sounding Corus Hotel on the north side of Hyde Park. Walls are adorned with posters and violins while 18th Century costumes leer over diners but it’s the waiters bursting into song that completes the theming.
It may sound a bit naff but it’s really not. This is not the Katherine Jenkins and Russell Watson floorshow but a tasteful trawl through operatic gems from talented young professionals.
True the emphasis is on the more popular side of the repertoire – Carmen’s Habanera and Traviata’s brindisi (for which our glasses are charged with sparkling wine) – but the singers get the chance to dish up heavier fare too, which the night I attended included Eboli’s “O Don fatale” (minus face-tearing, I hasten to add) from Don Carlo and “Ya vas lyublyu” from The Queen of Spades. Much more ambitious stuff and beautifully performed.
Zerlina was seduced during starters, the main course was accompanied by the delicious quartet from Rigoletto and we had Casta Diva over coffee.
There’s a roster of some 50 singers and pianists and I saw a splendid quartet of students from the Guildhall School opera course (tenor Alberto Sousa, baritone Koji Terada, mezzo Cátia Moreso and soprano Susana Gaspar) and a superb accompanist in Eun Jung Lee. The quality of singing and playing and the refined surroundings make this more than just a gimmick or cheap tourist attraction, which I’ll confess was my initial expectation.
There’s a good choice of dishes on the £35 menu (limited for vegetarians) and the whole package will cost you (each) less than the price of a mid-range ticket in Covent Garden’s amphitheatre.
There’s the chance to chat to the singers between courses, as they slip effortlessly, and with impressive humility, between singing and serving (Lavoriam’ was never more pertinent). In fact, we had a false start to the final act of Bohème, as Rodolfo didn’t make it out of the kitchen in time. When he did appear, and Koji Terada’s Marcello started over, Sousa began singing with plates in hand. The atmosphere is very different but there’s something of the wonderful spontaneity of OperaUpClose’s Bohème, currently running at Kilburn’s Cock Tavern.
I have to admit, having overcome initial concerns about the integrity of the concept, this hard-bitten cynic, who sees more than 50 operas a year and prefers Ligeti to Libiamo, was charmed. It’s ideal for special occasions (what a great first date it would make) and I suspect I’ll be dipping into my pocket and returning with friends before long.
We began with Mozart and were wafted into the night more than three hours later by Cosi’s “Soave sia il vento”. I haven’t lingered over a meal so long before or felt both body and soul so well catered for.
More about Bel Canto in London and Paris at www.lebelcanto.com