sun 26/10/2014

La Bohème, OperaUpClose | Opera reviews, news & interviews

La Bohème, OperaUpClose

Plenty of charm, wit and love in this immersive take on the Romantic classic

OperaUpClose's La Bohème in one of it previous incarnations

Clearly rents in 2010 were substantially cheaper than I remember because somehow Rodolfo and Marcello have managed to find a garret in Soho of all places. And it would be easy to continue my review in this vein, poking the odd hole in OperaUpClose’s updating of La Bohème, including mentioning my temptation to shout out, “Pawn your laptop for some Covonia, mate, your girlfriend’s got a right cough on her!” But none of those quibbles were really the point of this production. While we did begin in a lacklustre set of IKEA furniture, with some shy, awkward lad acting from the quartet of impoverished arty boys, by the time we’d rushed to the beginning of Act Two, we'd begun to spy the real genius of this production. 

Director and librettist Robin Norton-hale has asked herself the perhaps obvious but rarely asked question, why have a fake bar crowd onstage when you can use the audience? So her troop of slightly shy singers steeled themselves for some light audience participation and, in doing so, come to life. Act Two was the thrilling heart of this production. At one point, much to my alarm, I thought someone was trying to sell me DVDs inside the theatre. The feisty Musetta, played by the impressive and seductive Prudence Sanders, flirted and tantrumed her way back into the arms of Tom Bullard’s Marcello. Throughout Act Two, the engaging and brave chorus circled us, running back and forth serving drinks, singing, shouting out jibes and providing crisp little vignettes, proving just how useful and provoking a small chorus can be.  

The translated libretto concentrated a bit too much on proving just how modern it isNorton-Hale’s fresh staging of the street sellers and café scenes were some of the best I had ever seen. It made the point that, to have it on stage, would in fact have been less interesting and vivid and also revealed an interesting truth. As the houselights rose and the cast swigged gin free G&T’s and suspiciously orange pints of lager, it became incredibly apparent that the audience was not the usual opera audience.

I’m not going to be boring about demographics or generalisations but it was pretty clear from peoples' reactions that most of them had never been to the opera before. This is where OperaUpClose excels; they have produced an opera so accessible and alive that the audience didn’t need surtitles or even a synopsis to know what was going on. This really is opera for anyone.

Norton-Hale’s frank translation of Illica and Giacosa’s libretto lacked poetry but it certainly did not lack dramatic pacing as it steamed ahead, never relying on a static line. It did, however, concentrate a bit too much on proving just how modern it is by constantly mentioning things like tequila and Strictly (Come Dancing). Norton-Hale doesn’t seem to realise her real strength is in untangling the complex vein of jealousy and affection that runs through the opera. To that end the libretto in Act Three shone. I’m sure that almost everyone in the audience could recognise Mimi’s emotional state as she sang, "At night when I pretend that I am sleeping, he lies beside me fuming, inventing ways I’ve hurt him".  

By the Fourth Act, the quartet of arty boys have lost their shyness and begun to really act together, providing the audience with hilarious vignettes, including bread throwing and mildly homoerotic ballroom dancing. This ensemble doesn’t diminish, it only strengthens with the introduction of Mimi, sung by the evocative Susan Jiwey. Mimi’s death scene was incredibly moving. It felt at times as if we were watching a farewell performance from a great diva as she died in the arms of Philip Lee’s sensitive Rodolofo. Jiwey never sacrificed her impressive vocal colour or extraordinary range for coughs or acting and pulled off the rare trick of dying on stage with honesty.

Rodolfo’s response to this is shocking. I imagine there was a lot of surreptitious eye-daubing as Philip Lee shouted in impassioned grief at his band of helpless bohemians. Philip Lee’s acting was great - subtle throughout and then show stopping towards the end, highlighting the fact that acting is really the key to OperaUpClose’s Bohème. With a simple set and a single piano accompaniment the singers could seem exposed but each in turn rose to the challenge and filled the Charing Cross Theatre with charm, wit and, quite frankly, love.

Mimi’s death scene was incredibly moving

rating

4

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