sat 18/11/2017

La Bohème, The Village Underground | reviews, news & interviews

La Bohème, The Village Underground

La Bohème, The Village Underground

Immersive opera at its best

Doubtless no one arriving at the edgy warehouse venue of The Village Underground in Shoreditch was expecting the evening's action to be set within an 18th-century Parisian garret. After all, it's more of a shocker nowadays if an opera is performed within its original setting. However, it's probably equally as true to say that few were expecting to enter via a white-sheeted decontamination zone staffed by safety-suited, gas-masked and goggled heavies. Or indeed to have a stick-shaped geiger counter put to their ear to check for infection before being waved through (my thanks at this point to the goggled ear-checker who let me pass untouched, evidently sensing at 50 paces my horror at this impending personal space invasion).

 

Then, as we emerged via a walkway caged by high mesh barriers into the bare-brick warehouse space itself, the scene was about as far from your standard opera house as it would be possible to achieve. The smell of dry ice thick in one's nostrils, clinical bleeps sounding on and off, smoke swirling menacingly, and posters exhorting people to call the authorities should anyone be taken ill, all made for a sensory cocktail that quite literally planted you into a different world. Evidently, the cause of Mimi's forthcoming demise was no longer going to be tuberculosis. Instead, the artists-formerly-known-as-the-Bohemians are survivors living in some sort of post-disaster world, without mains electricity or running water, in which the population is being slowly ravaged by a mysterious incurable disease. In fact, it's essentially a 21st-century reimagining of what TB must have felt like for Puccini's generation. Very clever.

The sense for the audience of having joined this new post-apocalyptic world was underlined as the opera began by an actress planted in our midst who collapsed in deathly coughs before being carried away by the aforementioned safety-suited heavies. Each act took place in a different part of the warehouse, so we correspondingly moved our seats to create and face the changing performance spaces. It made for a surprisingly light-hearted audience atmosphere. In fact, generally there were more laughs than is usual for a standard La bohème performance, many of which were thanks to some wittily loose translations of the libretto projected onto the warehouse wall, including Rodolfo's description of the News of the World as an "excellent" newspaper.

As for the musical performance itself, it was from start to finish a triumph of intelligent musical interpretation and utter charm. Steven Moore conducted Jonathan Dove's reduction for 18-piece chamber orchestra with a warmth and expansiveness that stopped you missing the full orchestra surprisingly quickly, and indeed often had you hearing Puccini's score anew. They supported a cast who all, with no exceptions, are surely destined for bright careers. Alistair Digges captured the vulnerability behind Rodolfo's amorous bravado; Matthew Sprange was a fine-voiced and suitability macho Marcello; Ilona Domnich as Mimi was warm, dreamy and expressive, whilst Keri Fuge sang Musetta with such silvery fire and upper-register strength that you were left almost cursing Puccini for not having given her character more arias to play with.

'The production saw some of the most nuanced dramatic performances you're ever likely to see on an operatic stage'

 

However, what really marks this production out as special and different is the acting. Somehow, despite the fact that opera as a genre started life as a direct offshoot of the theatre, and 18th-century stars such as Mozart's leading lady Nancy Storace being valued as much for their ability to play a role as to sing it, we've got to a place today where it isn't unusual, and it even feels churlish to mind, if glorious singing is accompanied by lacklustre acting.

As a result, Vignette Productions' operas stand out for the extreme care that Staples takes over this aspect. The rehearsal process starts not with the musical notes but with the text alone, studied first in English, followed by the operatic translation, and then finally sung to music. The result on Thursday was a production characterised by some of the most immediate, natural, finely nuanced dramatic performances you're ever likely to see on an operatic stage, with the singers not just engaging with the finer points of their own lines, but with those of their fellow cast members. It's gripping in the extreme.

La bohème's two London dates are now followed by one night in Cambridge (30 July) before the production travels to France. Given that Vignette Productions is now into its third year and third opera, we can only hope that 2012 brings not just a fourth year for this brilliant company, but more UK dates too.

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