The bar staff is collecting empty glasses. Crowds of drinkers are chatting and laughing. A shifty-looking guy tries to sell pirate DVDs from a dirty bag. It’s a normal night out in London’s Soho.
Then all those people suddenly start singing. Where normality ends, opera begins.
Act 2 of “La Boheme” has rarely felt so lively or intimate. In Puccini’s original, the action takes place in a busy cafe. In a coup de theatre of such striking simplicity it makes you wonder why it isn’t done more often, director Robin Norton-Hale moves the whole scene into a real bar. The audience members think they’re there to have a quick interval drink after Act 1 has finished. Instead, they find themselves in the middle of Musetta’s noisy tiff with her sugar daddy, and her outrageous flirting with ex-boyfriend Marcello.
If only all bars were so entertaining. The chorus of waitresses and barflies stand so close you can feel their breath on your neck when they sing. The fact that the accompaniment is bashed out on a tinny piano (by music director Andrew Charity) makes it feel all the more authentic.
The rest of the small-scale Opera Up Close production takes place more conventionally on the stage of the Soho Theatre, and doesn’t pack the same punch. Norton-Hale, who has written a new English performing version and shortened the opera, updates the action to modern-day London and shows the characters living in messy student digs. She also puts young singers in all the lead roles of this triple-cast show.
Sometimes their inexperience tells. They forget that their room is meant to be cold. The complicated horseplay scenes need more careful blocking. Musically, things could bear improvement.
That aside, the youthfulness of the singers brings an emotional intensity to the story. In the cast I saw, Rosalind Coad and Anthony Flaum were touchingly vulnerable as the on-off young lovers Mimi and Rodolfo, and the death scene had real weight.
If it’s not the most polished “Boheme” ever, it’s one of the most memorable and enjoyable.
“La Boheme” is one of the most performed operas ever. Riccardo Zandonai’s patchy “Francesca da Rimini” (1914) is one of the least. So a new production at Opera Holland Park, a festival that boldly explores out-of-the-way verismo repertoire, is a must for completists and the curious.
It’s easy to see why producers are drawn to it like moths to a flame. Zandonai’s Debussy-meets-Puccini score has some moments of melting orchestral luxury. The plot involves adultery and murder. The medieval setting and a battle scene offer scope for spectacle.
It’s also easy to see why those producers so rarely convince opera companies to put it on. The drama meanders, there are too many antagonists who lack character, and the central adulterous conflict feels thin.
For all that, director Martin Lloyd-Evans does a terrific job with the material. The set, a rusting metal fortress, provides the necessary claustrophobia and menace. The handsome medieval costumes look splendid. The battle scene, involving a shrieking female chorus and suspended flaming arrows flying over the stage, goes with a terrific bang.
Cheryl Barker is Francesca, a woman in a loveless dynastic marriage who finds solace in the arms of her brother-in-law Paolo. Her big, weighty voice sounds great, and she charts Francesca’s journey from haughtiness into abandonment with impressive force. Julian Gavin sobs with suitable tenorial passion as Paolo, and Phillip Thomas keeps things ticking over nicely in the pit.
It’s a great production of a flawed curiosity, and another reason to cherish the U.K.’s most enterprising opera festival.
“La Boheme” is at the Soho Theatre through Sept. 4. Information: http://www.sohotheatre.com or +44-20-7478-0100.
“Francesca da Rimini” is in repertory at Opera Holland Park until Aug. 13. See http://www.ohp.rbkc.gov.uk or call +44-845-230-9769.
(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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