OperaUpClose presents: La Bohème

Now in their tenth year, OperaUpClose present Robin Norton-Hale’s adaptation of the Puccinian classic in their trademark style of relaxed, approachable operatic performance. and in La Bohème, they continue to be at the forefront of reclaiming the operatic arts from the haughty, tiaraed class: this is La Bohème for les bohèmes. 

We find ourselves in the bleak mid-winter in bleak mid-Stokes Croft. At first this seems ludicrous, the millennials take on high opera atmosphere is The Telegraph’s worst nightmare and is all the better for it.In this rendition, four struggling flatmates: Rodolfo (Philip Lee), Marcello (Nicolas Dwyer), Schaunard (Ian Beadle) and Colline (Julian Debreuil) sing away their financial woes on Christmas Eve. Neighbour Mimi (Claire Wild) coughs and splutters her way on stage in mellifluous melancholy, firmly and entertainingly embracing the age-old operatic paradox of a dying woman belting out aria after aria, although our imaginations are kept exercised as Mimi wastes away from hypothermia on a stuffy June evening at the Old Vic- as ever more blankets are piled on top of her, heat exhaustion seems to be the most pressing issue. Our stooge is Benoitthe landlord (Martin Nelson), who, in the interests of residual classism, performs in a backwards cap a tracksuit (picture an Ian McKellen-Ali Ghybrid). Exogenously refreshed throughout, the role of dicky-hearted Musetta (Sarah Minns), for over a century so cloaked on misogyny, has been remoulded, now presented as a spunky, assertive and salt-of-the-earth rather than conniving harlot, and her blazing rows with Marcello are a sight to behold – paint brushes and insults will fly. 

Never knowingly understated, Mimi’s dies in prima donna style, which makes for an ending of high emotion, and is suitably met with rapturous applause. The use of split locations is trademark OperaUpClose, and just like Ronseal, they do exactly what they say on the tin, performing their repartee-rich arias from among us in the Bristol Old Vic’s cavernous 1766 Bar.

Norton-Hale’s libretto is a tour de force. She has successfully stripped back a century of librettist meddling to the essence of La Bohème, and in actual fact cuts to the opera’s core: a second Beggars’ Opera, far better suited to this staging format (sofa bed, hoodie, pub) than it is to the white gloved splendour of Glyndebourne. Badinage is at the heart of the performance’s success: local place names are referenced throughout alongside a healthy dollop of Brexit satire (always a safe bet at the Bristol Old Vic). There is no denying that this performance is unrefined in places, but proudly so. The breath-taking physicality of the choreography in traditional opera is also notably absent in this adaptation. What is absolutely faultless, however, is the performance of solo accompanist Elspeth Wilkes, and her tinkling of the ivories deserves special recognition. 

OperaUpClose’s modern reinterpretation of Puccini’s rags-to-rags spectacular wows with self-deprecation, exogenous detail and tongue ‘n cheek libretto. It wittily embraces its identity as tragedy coached in badinage, and, in the process may have just out-Puccinied Puccini. Boomers beware, they’re coming for your beloved opera. 

****

FOUR STARS

George Ruskin, Theatre & Arts Editor
@ruskinism