La Boheme

Puccini

OperaUpClose

Charing Cross Theatre

From 30 November 2012 to 19 January 2013

Review by Louise Lewis

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Ever had a pirate DVD and cigarettes sold to you during act two of an opera? Robin Norton-Hale makes Puccini an unusually interactive experience.

The update is simple—the four artists have left their drafty attic and moved into student digs in the centre of Soho. Mimi is transformed into an illegally immigrated Ukrainian cleaner, explaining the lack of medical treatment as she becomes more ill.

This is the third revival of OperaUpClose’s Olivier Award-winning La Boheme, this time on tour with first stop Charing Cross. Somehow the set looked more dilapidated in the slightly smaller Soho Theatre in 2010—now there is a pristine hat stand and a far too large flat. It leaves you thinking the four boys look like overgrown students that spend their loan money on alcohol; poverty a lifestyle choice rather than necessity. Overlooking this, the rest of Norton-Hale’s re-write yet again sends waves of laughter around the auditorium and is gripping throughout.

When you think of opera in a small theatre you could think complications. Norton-Hale sees these as opportunities: who needs a huge set when the story is designed for a small, crowded apartment?

The set design by Kate Guiness and Lucy Read recreates the clutter, whilst focusing the action around a central sofa. In act two they’re missing the bar location of Soho Theatre, but instead the cast zooms around the auditorium catcalling and recreating a busy bar atmosphere. No need for a huge chorus when the audience can become part of the pub.

No room for an orchestra? No bother, a piano suffices and this complements the younger cast. Keen to use appropriately-aged performers, the younger voices (with the exception of Rodolfo) fit brilliantly in the small opera house, bringing another layer of reality. No subtitles are required as the cast's articulation is clear, wittily delivering Norton-Hale’s wonderfully updated libretto. 

There are three rotating casts to keep the production on stage every night, but unfortunately last night Rudolfo’s (Gareth Morris) voice sounded pushed to breaking point. Clearly blessed with a wonderful operatic voice, it didn’t sit well alongside the rest of the cast and lacked the clarity of diction found in the others. The tension in his voice belting out top notes had many an audience member bracing themselves in fear. In contrast, crooning sotto voce evoked tender care and this volume seemed more appropriate for the venue.

The men were electric as an ensemble, Puccini performed whilst battling with pizza boxes and dueling with pillows. Musetta (Una Reynolds) sparkles, vivaciously flouncing about playing with Marcello (Tom Bullard’s) emotions. Bullard is the most natural on stage, exceedingly clear diction and engaging as a pretty boy painter wrapped up in Musetta. 

Susan Jiwey (Mimi) is the star vocally, with soaring bright tones. Even without the searching string melodies to tug at our heartstrings, she cast a spell over the audience, able to drag us back from the prior antics to Puccini’s true tragic tale in her death scene and there were several sobbing in the stalls. Unfortunately the mood was unsustainable, the piano unable to drag out the final chord at her death. This meant an abrupt end, only seconds before applause and her beaming bows.

As OperaUpClose is growing in success and venue size, we’re not jammed as close to the action, but this adaptation still reaches out to the stalls and drags us right to the heart of the story.