Pub opera that raises the bar

La Bohème

OperaUpClose

Belgrade Theatre, Coventry

****

OPERAUPCLOSE is a youthful opera company founded in 2009, which only two years later picked up a Laurence Olivier award - confirming it as one of the most inventive forces in Touring Opera circulating round England today.

It is currently based at the equally award-winning King's Head Pub in Islington, which has pioneered its own enterprising programme of Theatre and stagings: art of a high order in delightfully informal surroundings; and is now embarking on opera, with Joanna Lumley, no less, as its patron.

Their production of La Bohème, directed by Robin Norton-Hale, one of OperaUpClose's founding triumvirate, and capitalising on a vital new libretto by him (Paris entertainingly transported to the environs of Soho, with a nod to Maida Vale and allusions – but surprisingly, not cheap ones - to Jamie Oliver, Strictly Come Dancing and the inevitable Primark), spearheaded the company's first forays onto the London stage scene, and is as fresh as daisy today.

This is partly because changing casts inevitably give it a new verve, and a slightly different slant. So electrified were the performances, this could easily have been a First Night.

Maybe surprisingly, Bohème (first staged 1896) is, to my mind, - a ‘problem' opera to stage. In one sense, like Carmen, it is a sure-fire hit with audiences: essential box office, as here, where the Belgrade, not a usual home for opera, was virtually full; and difficult to get wrong. Such is the maturity of Puccini's writing that with this, only his fourth opera, he was already at the height of his powers, and would remain for over the next three decades. With its fin-de-siècle student garret decadence, La Bohème invariably works. It is almost impossible to foul up.

Against that is the fact that it's tricky to do something new with it, and the best advice is usually to let it speak for itself. OperaUpClose's most glaring departure – albeit one tried by other ensembles too: most recently in the Midlands by Warwick's inspired Armonico Consort - was to stage Act II, the Musetta/café Momus scene, in the bar.

The Belgrade's unsuspecting audience was hoicked out of the auditorium into the foyer and there, glass in hand, witnessed one of the funniest fallouts I can recall between Musetta - the brilliant, feisty Prudence Sanders, a genius at quarrelling, for future casting directors - and her ghastly sugardaddy (the hilarious Martin Nelson, a veteran of UK opera companies including Covent Garden, with Mozart's Don Alfonso and Doctor Bartolo in his repertoire, and a good deal of contemporary opera too).

This was quick-fire interchange – stichomythia, as the ancient Greeks called it – at its best. The pompous fuming and seething, cat-like spitting were, to risk a weak rhyme, side-splitting.

Musetta's on/off boyfriend, the aspiring painter Marcello (sung here by Tom Stoddart), is of course the beneficiary. It's in the later scenes, following or as part of his and Musetta's own spat (contrived to offset the tentative reconciliation of Rodolfo and Mini), that this Marcello gets his lease of life – and blossoms. His was a voice with potential: maybe on the way to something good. Stoddart's English enunciation, for instance, like the rest of this cast's, was exemplary. With his moody student slouch and swagger (somehow the tight jeans don't help), he moves quasi-naturally but somehow not yet well. Real stage-savvy and imagination was lacking.

Dickon Gough's stork-like basso Colline, pointlessly (as it turns out) pawning for Mimi not a coat but – here - a cigarette box, with his famously sad set-piece aria, did catch the audience's ear, even if some lowest notes need further honing. Alistair Sutherland as fellow-student Schaunard, sometimes a tricky role to get right, was pretty successful too – not just bouncy (which he has to be) but engaged, serious and empathetic. The boyish games he coordinates in Act IV just before Mimi returns to die were merrily executed by all four: Norton-Hale's direction did its stuff; all was well coordinated.

RATHER FUN

The smaller parts counted for something. I liked the barmaid (Rebecca Shanks) and barfly (Claire Daly), trysting with a rather good male chorus (a quartet, achieving much). Barnaby Rea's intoxicated, economically doomed Benoît (the Landlord) was rather fun, too: Puccini's Act I vignette is usually a winner, and so it was here.

Everything hinges on Rodolfo and Mimi: if they can deliver, this opera soars (literally) to the heights. And my goodness, they could.

OperaUpClose's tour sports a triple cast for the two leads. Here were enchanted by a Celtic duo: Welshman Gareth Dafydd Morris and the delightful Royal Scottish Academy and Guildhall product Rhona McKail.

Some wise teachers have worked magic on these two voices. Morris, from the land that produced not just world-beating baritone Bryn Terfel but the superb tenor Dennis O'Neill, sounded as if he was in hot pursuit of the latter. His breathing is simply first-class. Hence his wonderful sustaining, and ability to encompass high notes (if just once overstrained) with not just ease, but beauty. He was a joy to listen to.

He could manage the subtly phased changes of mood, visual as well as musical; there is recitative in Puccini, and he executed it the best of this cast; indeed, he charmed with almost every note. So crucial are the duets – often enough in unison or direct imitation - it's as if Puccini's Mimi and Rodolfo fall in love with each other's voices, as well the hearts and souls they sing of. And here, who wouldn't?

If poet Rodolfo was on the hefty side (and after Pavarotti, who cares?), McKail was a beautiful, sightly Mimi, even if she looks a mite more like a Musetta. Act II, despite the cocktail shenanigans does little to build her character; thus by Act III, where they have already split up, we yearn for a bit more of the history and build-up than Puccini's librettists, Illica and Giacosa, allow us; conceivably in Scènes de la vie de bohème, the spirited, garish novel/play by Henri Murger on which it's based, more is spelt out.

Yet this Angst-ridden Third Act rencontre has a different function: it shows us patently shy youngsters, trying to reconcile but not knowing how to. It's just as pathetic (in the real sense) as the original Rodolfo-Mimi meeting and the inevitable garret death scene.

SOUL-SEARING

McKail carried off all three beautifully, her top notes (one exit sequence above all), absolutely soul-searing; middle notes just a fraction tending to flatten. At Mimi's (here) bloodless expiry from advanced tuberculosis, Norton-Hale's moves and blocking, for once, seemed less than ideal: the moment of terrible dramatic irony where the others realise Morris's Rodolfo is the only one unaware of her death was sensitively done, but not surely as persuasively as it might have been.

So perhaps a mixed bag, but much of this La Bohème bordered on excellence. As for Puccini, his style is so gloriously unplaceable. The legacy of Massenet, doubtless; a whiff of Tristan; short passages of pure Debussy – more a coincidence than a borrowing; funeral music like Mussorgsky or updated Chopin; and not so much Verdi as Fauré too. Yet a concoction that is so individually Puccini emerges, and had already done so by his preceding masterpiece, Manon Lescaut (1893).

Why was all this so evident? Because the true hero of the evening was the accompanist, Elspeth Wilkes. To have a repetiteur of such quality accounts substantially for the musical excellence of this show (a chance to mention OperaUpClose's other ventures in English, including Tosca, The Barber of Seville, Don Giovanni, The Turn of the Screw and – incredibly – the doyen of them all, Monteverdi's The Coronation of Poppea, which even in opera's teething days sported one of the most brilliant libretti ever written.

But Wilkes is no backroom girl. Well placed front sidestage right – the Belgrade's acoustic somehow loved this, for it worked wonders, adding rich colours and resonance to the keyboard sound; the piano itself, presumably in-house, was almost a very good one – Wilkes delivered a performance that revealed all the subtleties, mood-shifts, interleaving and understatement of Puccini's often overhammed score. (Her attentive accompaniment of Colline's aria showed her beautiful restraint. Elsewhere, she positively scampered.)

What about piano accompaniments in principle? Clonter Opera, in Cheshire, has developed its repertoire similarly with keyboard (though sometimes small ensemble-) accompanying; and so has Heritage Opera, in Lancashire (a company opera lovers should seek out, if they tour to the Midlands): the result is always an enrichment, not a loss. Textures actually emerge.

It is in fact the way singers hear throughout the rehearsal process. What's more, it was from piano (or two-piano) scores that, before the 78, LP and CD age, one composer learned from another: like Debussy from Wagner, Schoenberg from Brahms. They really are revealing. Maybe a little too bald for some, though no one in this audience seemed other than transported. Colourless? Not at all.

La Bohème is a seasonal progression that even Ibsen or Strindberg would have been proud of: Spring-Summer-Autumn-Winter. First love-burgeoning-disillusion-death. A triumph of this fine, well thought-through staging, abetted by an apt '60s-'70s (or maybe current) student garret from designer Lucy Read (especially associated with the daring, innovative Oval House Theatre in Kennington), and expressive, well-aimed lighting (never easy with a single-night performance at any venue) by Richard Williamson (after Chris Nairne's original scheme) alternating whites and amber-golds with not just taste and sensitivity, but relevance, was that it caught this progressional, evolutionary, joy-into-desolation feel so well.

The tiny hand may not have been frozen (‘Your fingers are half-frozen', in this version); but with Mimi's demise, a light went out on the student world anywhere. 22-01-13

Roderic Dunnett

OperaUpClose's new opera is Donizetti's L'elisir D'amore, set in 1950's Hollywood, conceived and directed by Valentina Ceschi and written by Verity Bargate award winner Thomas Eccleshare. To book - www.kingsheadtheatre.com  - 0207 478 0160 

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