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La Bohème

by on 19 May 2022

Intense Conviction

La Bohème

after Giacomo Puccini, new English libretto by Philip Lee and David Eaton

KHT and Making Productions at King’s Head Theatre, Islington until 28th May

Review by Patrick Shorrock

Putting on La Bohème these days can be tricky, as Puccini’s characters can easily come across as rather middle-aged and respectable.  By the time your operatic career has developed sufficiently for you to sing Mimi or Rodolpho, you are probably going to be too old to pass muster as a young person living on the edge.  I remember how David Freeman’s Opera North production asked some interesting questions about whether these young people are making a stand against convention or simply afraid of middle age and responsibility.  He had one of the characters – now a grand old man of the artistic establishment – introduce each act with reminiscences about his time as a young Turk.   

Mark Ravenhill’s production at the King’s Head Theatre, Islington, does a great job of restoring some edginess to the piece by transposing it to contemporary London.  Rob/Rodolpho is a hack writer using an i-pad who one Christmas Eve hooks up on Grindr with Mimi (“But my real name is Lucas”).  Transposing Mimi’s soaring lines down for a tenor is initially a shock – more shocking than the gender swap – but still works musically.  We also lose the sumptuous orchestral colour and thrilling big voices, but, in return, we get an immediacy and directness that just isn’t possible in the opera house.  The cast are able to sing quietly and conversationally.  They deliver Philip Lee’s and David Eaton’s sharp and witty libretto with real point (including a good line about fuel costs).  And, in this intimate auditorium, they have plenty left vocally for the big dramatic moments which come across with tremendous force thanks to Puccini’s glorious music.   (Musical Director David Eaton has to do it all with nothing but a piano, but you are so caught up in the drama that you barely notice.) 

Philip Lee’s Mimi/Lucas has a somewhat rougher voice than Daniel Koek’s Rob, whose voice has an attractive bloom and has no difficulty in swelling to fortissimo when appropriate.   Matthew Kellet is a strongly voiced Marcus/Marcello and Grace Nyandoro’s Marissa/Musetta steals the show, as Musettas tend to. 

As a concept it works.  Lucas is perhaps a bit of a gay stereotype: charismatic, damaged, and hedonistic (i.e. dysfunctional); undetectable, but not taking his meds, while indulging recklessly in other drugs to avoid dealing with reality.  I found myself sympathising with Rob here, whereas usually in La Bohème he comes across – like all too many operatic tenor roles – as emotionally insecure, controlling, and possessive.  By contrast Marcus and Marissa were more operatic business as usual, but none the worse for that.

The direction of the singers is excellent, although something went wrong with the staging.  Was Mimi dying in Rob’s flat with Marcus – who works on the perfumery counter at Liberty – as suggested by the dialogue?  Or was she actually in A & E accompanied by Marcus’s nurse brother in scrubs, as implied by set with its water cooler and calendar – all draped in depressing institutional Christmas tinsel.   This messiness is unnecessarily confusing and a bit annoying, but doesn’t undermine the intense conviction of the performances in this wonderfully intimate space.

Patrick Shorrock, May 2022

Photography by thebrittainphotography

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