The first opera we ever saw together was by OperaUpClose. On that occasion, they performed a 1920s set of La Traviata up the road at Tobacco Factory Theatres. The modern, intimate feel of this company, whose Librettist and Director, Robin Norton-Hale, makes the whole deal so accessible with a setting and language we can understand, did, in hindsight, make traditional opera somewhat unpalatable to me. I have since been to half a dozen or so productions by other larger and more traditional companies but have never felt quite as at home as I did that night in Bedminster, five years ago.
This is OperaUpClose’s 10th anniversary tour, for which they revive their first ever opera, La Bohéme. Lucky for us! This must be the most simple of stories to follow. Poor boy (Rodolfo) meets poor girl (Mimi), they fall in love, they part, they reunite and, being by Puccini, she dies. But this is not 19th Century Paris, this is Stokes Croft in 2019, with references so bang-up-to-date that Brexit gets a mention. No Italian with surtitles here at the Old Vic to grapple with; instead, every word is sung with absolute clarity in English, although, should you miss anything at all, all three acts are written in print in the programme. Act I sees an impoverished Rodolfo (Phillip Lee) burning his novel for fuel, admittedly less of a problem these days, seeing as his musings must be saved on the laptop in front of him. Financially on his arse as he might be, Rodolfo has loyal friends and that camaraderie maintains its realness in 21st Century Bristol (the location, like the cast, will presumably change depending on where the tour travels to). The audience needs these friendships as much as Rodolfo does because they lighten the heavy emotion of love (and eventually, loss) and Norton-Hale’s reworking has us laughing along with Rodolfo, Marcello, Schaunard and Colline to the point where you feel like back-slapping the person in the seat in front. In this act we also meet Mimi (Claire Wild) and witness the two leads start to become smitten with each other.
Set in a bar, Act II is a stroke of genius; the entire audience relocating to chairs and benches in the Old Vic’s newly refurbished 1766 bar, where the cast continually moves around us and Musical Director, Elspeth Wilkes, changes pianos, the only instrument in this scaled-down but uncompromised version of La Bohéme. UpCloseOpera? I’d say. At one point, Ian Beadle (Schaunard) and Colline (Julian Debreuil) stand at our table, singing into our ears, while Nicolas Dwyer’s Marcello paces frantically around us, totally thrown by the appearance of his ex, the coquettish Musetta (a joyous Sarah Minns), “What’s she doing here? She doesn’t drink in here!” says one of his pals somewhere over our shoulder. This is immersive theatre and, having a bird’s eye view of the love blossoming between Mimi and Rodolfo, who seem oblivious to the drama around them, it’s also very intimate.
Act III is back in the theatre proper and we see the trauma of a woman cast out and becoming weakened by sickness. If you’re wondering why Mimi doesn’t just go to the doctors, she doesn’t have her UK immigration papers!
Every performance here is strong. Phillip Lee delivers with increasing confidence next to a heart wrenching performance by Claire Wild as the pair declare their love (I was concerned about Mimi, to be honest, as I’m sure that powerful singing and emotion must be no good for her delicate body). This cast of just eight keeps the action flowing and the interest growing as we alternate collectively between amusement and sorrow.
My 12 year old companion seems to be the only young person in the audience tonight (whoa – that means she was only seven when we enjoyed La Traviata) and she is as wrapped up in it all as I am. OperaUpClose are currently developing their Learning and Participation programme across the UK and encourage all young people to embrace opera by performing in schools and offering free tickets to their theatre performances. And, really, if we want to open up this genre up to kids, I can honestly think of no better people to help us do that.
A die-hard lover of opera or a newcomer, I’d recommend OperaUpClose’s La Bohéme to all of you.
La Bohéme by OperaUpClose is on tour
See what is coming up at Bristol Old Vic