ALTHOUGH opera purists and some serious musicians dismiss La Boheme as a lightweight work with only limited merit, [composer Benjamin Britten disliked it intensely], audiences in general have taken the opposite view for more than a century and a quarter, making it one of the most popular and often presented of operas.
When Opera Up Close decided in 2009 to commission chamber orchestrations for a new English libretto by Robin Norton-Hale of this perennial favourite, they were taking a real flyer. What started as a six week experiment went on to win the Olivier Award for best new opera production two years later, and now, still under the guidance of librettist/director Robin Norton-Hale, it is enjoying a successful tenth anniversary tour.
It is also still prepared to take chances, the middle act at Bristol Old Vic being staged, or to be more exact freely set, in the bar/ restaurant area with the audience taking the place of the chorus in a conventional production, wining and dining while the singers play out their roles. With a near full house inside the theatre left to find their own vantage points in the bar /restaurant the scene was played out with wonderful aplomb by the cast.
Watching from the balcony bar I found myself next to Sarah Minns’ Musetta flirting outrageously with all around her, much to the embarrassment of Martin Nelson’s pompous elderly beau, and the rising frustration of Nicolas Dwyer as her real lover Marcello. Down below you could see the love between the fragile Mimi (Claire Wild) and easily distracted writer Rodolfo (Philip Lee), blossoming and his companions Schaunard, (Ian Beadle), and Colline, (Julian Debreuil), mixed with the customers with the ease of people who drink there every evening.
In the middle of the dining area sat pianist Elspeth Wilkes, watching every move, listening to every note sung, giving tremendous support to the singers, as she was to do throughout the evening.
The acoustic in this strange setting was surprisingly good, in many ways better than in the theatre itself, or was that the fact that a seat in the side-aisle of the dress circle with a balcony directly above is perhaps not the best place to listen or watch opera.
The modern flat setting with pale walls never quite gave the impression of bleak coldness, robbing Act 1 of a little of its reality, as did Rodolfo and Marcello still complaining about the cold in Act 3 wearing short sleeved shirts. Fortunately they were in command of their characters well enough to push these faults into the background. Neither did the setting detract from Claire Wild as her lovely joyous Mimi in Act 2 reappeared, with death hanging over her, to play out those final heartrending moments with acting skills to match her controlled vocal presentation.
She was matched with a fine display of understated sincere sorrow from Sarah Minns’ Musetta, with Schaunard and Colline helping considerably to complete this final tragic picture.