Puccini’s La Boheme has long elicited a powerful emotional response from its audiences, but rarely have the cast been close enough to see its effects on the faces of those watching them. OperaUpClose deliver exactly what their name suggests: beloved classics in an intimate setting. La Boheme, winner of the Olivier Award for Best Opera in 2011, is part immersive, part promenade, and all the more atmospheric for its one-off staging beneath the hull of the Cutty Sark in Greenwich.
Opera venue or not, the Cutty Sark is always an impressive sight. The performance took place on Saturday
November 12th, and the tea clipper’s rigging was ghostly in the autumn evening. Once inside, audience members were directed down under the body of the ship, to find their seats for the first act. Anyone who still equates opera with snobbery and/or inaccessibility might breathe a sigh of relief on discovering that this was a contemporary, English version of La Boheme, directed by Robin Norton-Hale. The performers wore jeans, cracked satirical asides and swigged vodka onstage. The stage itself resembled a ramshackle apartment complete with a fibre optic Christmas tree and sporadic tinsel.
The story begins on Christmas Eve, and would-be novelist Rodolfo (Edward Hughes) and his painter friend Marcello (Tom Colwell), are lacking girlfriends, money, food and central heating. But the bachelors are resourceful, and in an effort to win the battle against the cold, Rodolfo sacrifices his manuscript to be burnt. Hughes’s tenor complements Colwell’s baritone, one gentler, one more commanding, much like their onstage personas. Rodolfo and Marcello are joined by their friends, Schaunard (Alistair Sutherland) and Colline (Dickon Gough), similarly starving artistes. Sutherland and Gough are charming in their roles. They sing a gleeful ode to Rudolfo’s literary efforts as, page by page, his papers disappear. When the fire fizzles out, the studenty bohemians proclaim the ending of the novel ‘disappointing’, and at this, insist on a trip to the pub, where they will at least be warm and in the company of women.
This is a contemporary piece, though, and Rodolfo’s little source of income as a freelance writer means he has to ‘knock out’ 1000 words for a website by the end of the evening. Promising to join his friends later, he sits down with his laptop when there is a knock at the door. Having seen off his landlord – played with vim and seedy humour by Martin Nelson – once already that evening, Rodolfo is surprised to discover that waiting outside is a female neighbour in need of his help.
The neighbour is Mimi, played by Elinor Jane Moran. Moran’s soprano is in equal measure strong and fragile. Mimi is a cleaner, and therefore must deal with the grimier side of life, but she is also good-hearted, sweet, meek even – and Rodolfo is instantly smitten. Those familiar with the story will already know that Mimi’s tale is a tragic one, foreshadowed in this act by a persistent cough. However, a lost key and the clasping of her frozen fingers ensure that before the end, Mimi will experience great romance.
But first, the pub. Cue a brief interlude where audience members had to reposition themselves in the café to the right of the staging area. There was just about enough time to order a drink (to really commit to the immersive experience), and then the show continued. Flamboyance arrived in the form of Musetta, Marcello’s occasional girlfriend, played by Sarah Minns. Dazzling in red, Minns sang in her distinctive soprano whilst clambering on chairs, cackling heartily and perching on the knee of an unsuspecting audience member. And all in formidable heels. It was fun and chaotic, and it’s not every day an opera singer performs a nineteenth-century score inches from your glass of house white. Even the barman was a performer (played by James Schouten) – a nice touch that enhanced the playful tone of this scene.
The first half culminated in the reunion of Marcello and Musetta, when the latter’s latest boyfriend (again played by Martin Nelson), shies away from her public hijinks once and for all. The interval followed, providing an opportunity to look around the restored space, which suffered fire damage in 2007. There were times throughout the show when audience members could be spotted glancing up at the gleaming copper underbelly of the boat, or around at the many figureheads on display. These figureheads are brightly coloured, bringing to mind objects plucked from a carousel, and there is no denying that they made for rather sinister audience members. That gazes were wandering is not a reflection of the quality of the performance – it is an uncommon thing after all, to find yourself surrounded by history, opera and water.
After the interval, the action returned to the stage. This second half of La Boheme contains very little of the jollity had in the first. Musetta and Marcello’s relationship has soured once more, and, perhaps more surprisingly, this is also the case for Rudolfo and Mimi. Though still in love, Rudolfo’s bouts of misplaced jealousy put the relationship under strain and it eventually crumbles. To make matters worse, Mimi’s health is deteriorating. One thing hasn’t changed, though, and that’s the poverty. Rudolfo reveals his plan to Marcello: if Mimi can find someone with the money to pay for a doctor, perhaps she can get better.
Things, naturally, do not go to plan. Whilst the polarisation of the female characters does feel somewhat simplistic, at least in the final stages of the piece we see Musetta gain more depth, as she sacrifices her material wealth to pay for Mimi’s medical care and unites her with Rudolfo once more. The final scene was an affecting one. Throughout the show, the piano was seamless, surging, sensitive – thanks to the talents of Elspeth Wilkes.
Though originally conceived in the 1800s, this adaptation feels authentic and relevant – the first world still harbours poverty in its major cities, with so many unable to afford heating and rent. However, the crux of the story is relationships, both romantic and platonic, and the struggles and joys that they bring. It is about idealism and reality. It is old and it is new. All of the characters are likeable in their own ways, and all of them are flawed. La Boheme did not enjoy much immediate success, meeting lukewarm responses from the critics. However, its popularity has far outlasted its initial reception, and provided fuel for many a creative director’s fire. OperaUpClose deserve their reputation as an exciting and vibrant company, as well as praise for bringing the art form closer to audiences than ever before. Should La Boheme return to a boat near you, it is well worth setting sail.
By Charlotte Newman