Arcola Studio 1
What more can be done with La Bohème? With the Royal Opera House finally retiring its venerable John Copley production after forty years, and polls regularly revealing La Bohème to be the world’s ‘favourite’ or ‘best-loved’ opera, is there really anything fresh to be said with Puccini’s tale of down-on-their luck artists in the Latin Quarter of Paris? Shouldn’t we just give the punters the traditional conventional performance they are used to? This was the challenge facing Opera 24 and Darker Purpose Theatre Company at the opening of this year’s Grimeborn Festival in Dalston.
In this production the Parisian garret and the Café Momus are relocated to ‘the wide fields of Hackney’, as the libretto archly puts it. With the orchestra tucked under the balcony overhang, the rest of the Arcola Studio 1 is given over to two contemporary settings: first a chilly, under-furnished apartment – with a variety of televisions on shelves, sleeping bags, a guitar and a single shared laptop; some old placards stuffed at the back and a painter’s equipment strewn around an ineffectual brazier. And secondly to the chairs and tables of a greasy-spoon diner whose symbol is the squeezable tomato-shaped ketchup dispenser that has its own grand guignol satirical moment in Act Two. Rodolfo (James Scarlett) is still a poet who has to burn his song lyrics to keep warm, Marcel (Ian Helm) is still a frustrated artist waiting for his big break, and Mimi (Heather Caddick) a fine seamstress, but here a Ukrainian immigrant whose uncertain status means she cannot qualify for proper health care. The orchestra is reduced to ten players, plus piano, but strings and woodwind are – crucially – fully represented.
Hearing the opera on this chamber scale makes you realize again how well made it is as a piece of musical craftsmanship. Just as in the very best film music, Puccini is a master of the art of rapid yet apparently seamless transition: in each scene there are many solo and ensemble moments that define individual character and move the plot along with theatrical flair, yet it is achieved effortlessly, without one seeing the joins. With smaller orchestral forces you can hear and see how it is done more easily and lucidly as the various lines weave in and out and fragments of melody are shared around and reassembled; but that does not diminish admiration for the result. With the two greatest arias coming first up in Act One, it ought not to work. Yet he composer adapts and reworks the material of those wonderful long-breathed romantic statements across the length of the opera so that the whole is unified and infused with the same harmonic language of yearning, wherever the flow of the action may be taking us.
Crucial to any new take on this opera is what to do with the old libretto, and here the production scores a palpable hit with John Farndon’s witty, slightly knowing, but entirely plausible contemporary translation, which gives the singers and actors much rich material with which to work. It provides the foundation for the credibility of the key performances and rightly plays up the many moments of comedy (of situation and language) that occur naturally in the opera. There are some very funny episodes in this production, especially in the scenes of male camaraderie and joshing that dominate in the parts of Acts One and Two, and they take their origin from the brio and sheer quality of the writing. Occasionally the sheer wordiness of the lyric writing provides some awkward corners for the singers to turn as they spin out Puccini’s long naturally breathed melodic lines, but for the most part there is a superb fit between words and music. The orchestral arrangements, by John Jansson, are similarly tasteful, so that the orchestra provides effective underscoring without dominating the voices. I missed the original orchestration only in the hustle and bustle of the Parisian café scenes, where Puccini is indulging a full impressionist palette of urban scene painting.
The performances are for the greater part very strong and convincing. Scarlett and Helm as Rodolfo and Marcel are in some ways the crucial pairing in this opera – they spend longer together than Rodolfo does with Mimi. As actors and singers they blended well together with a very natural rapport. Helm in particular acted out Marcel’s loyal friendship and artistic petulance and self-absorption most convincingly, and proved an effectively jealous lover in his scenes with Musetta (Danae Eleni). Scarlett’s delivery of his main aria was suitably resonant and noble despite some forcing of tone right at the top demands of the register, and his disintegration in the final two acts was both affecting and coherently and cogently acted, which is certainly not always the case.
The real vocal honours of the evening went to Caddick who sang with a wonderful purity of line and tone that commanded our attention throughout. The role of Mimi is difficult to bring off: the singer-actor needs to convey frailty while avoiding cheap, self-advertising victimhood; and the singing needs to be entirely authoritative while – if possible – conveying less than robust health. Caddick managed to inhabit all these aspects of her performance with a fine characterization of ‘grace under pressure’ – Hemingway’s definition of courage. I did not expect to be moved any more by the final scene but her performance enabled me to experience it afresh.
Among the smaller roles there were many fine contributions, itself a tribute to the way that Puccini democratically gives all his characters little jewel-like episodes where they can shine in the drama. Cheyney Kent, for example, made full use of his coat-selling scene in the final act; Leon Berger made the most of the roles of the landlord and Musetta’s elderly lover, where he has to be butt of all the jokes; and Andrew McIntosh provided lively support as Schaunard. Danae Eleni acted out Musetta’s contrasting roles as both café flirt and Mimi’s loyal friend very well, but she could have made more vocally of her set-piece aria in Act Two. Nick Fletcher set refreshingly bracing tempi from the pit that moved the action along breezily without placing the singers under strain.
So in sum, the production did achieve exactly what Grimeborn sets out to do each year. It knocked old layers of varnish off an old favourite and found a new and convincingly thought-through scenario in which to relocate it. Director Lewis Reynolds has a lot of experience in presenting opera at the King’s Head Theatre, which made him a very good choice to achieve fine results here. This was a truly committed, full-on team effort: and in this opera nothing else will deliver the goods.