It’s Christmas 2017, East London for this La Bohème. In their picturesque flat, Marcello and Rodolpho – sorry, Mark (Thomas Isherwood) and Ralph (Roger Paterson) – lament. The heating is broken, the rent is in arrears and how dare Facebook taunt them with the pictures of their happy friends? To warm themselves up, they burn Ralph’s manuscript while commenting:
Who knew theatre could be so enlightening?
The opening scene of Adam Spreadbury-Maher and Becca Marriott’s opera instantly sets the tone.
In this reinterpretation of Giacomo Puccini’s opera, the 10-plus roles are reduced to four main characters: Ralph, Mark, Mimi (Marriott) and Musetta (Honey Rouhani) in a shabby chic set by Becky-Dee Trevenen. Mimi, once a seamstress with tuberculosis, now becomes a heroin addict working part-time in a call center near Euston; the candlelight of her first not-quite-chance meeting with Ralph becomes the light of her iPhone.
Gone are the flourishes and curlicues of the original work. The missing ensemble of townsfolk is replaced by the audience; Puccini’s imperialist orchestration is reduced, or rather transcended to, piano and cello only – an extraordinary performance by Panaretos Kryiatzidis and William Rudge, both of whom can jump from arias to vodafone ringtones with impressive dexterity. The ravishing score is stripped down to the bare minimum, just enough to tug at your heartstrings and to take your breath away when the arias bounce back off the walls in the intimate Trafalgar Studios.
The characters curse a blue streak in between jabs at current events (“Theresa May must drown!”), yet it is the story that pulls you in with its everlasting reliability. The bohemian lifestyles of the characters in La Bohème have been romanticised over and over again, their love fetichised. But the production, helped along by a brand new English libretto, lays bare the effects of co-dependency in the lives and loves of modern-day characters.
Paterson’s Ralph is exhilarated, raw and on the side of a savior complex in need of therapy, while Isherwood’s Mark is grandiloquent in his pain and manichean in his opinions. Both bounce off of each other with credibility, efficiency and grinding humour. But women carry the show here.
Marriott’s Mimi is coy but opinionated, a blushing, wounded bird with a visceral and gripping performance that makes you sigh and shift uncomfortably on your seat. Rouhani’s Musetta, on the other hand, is enthralling. She enraptures and – quite literally – seduces the audience in the first half of a now entirely revisited Quando m’en vo’. Leather pants and push-up bra fade into the background, much less sensual in appearance than Rahouni’s characterisation of the infamous soprano. By Act Four, you wish for more of the intricacy inherent in Musetta’s character and feel slightly robbed of her evolution to a selfless woman. But as you leave the Trafalgar Studios, and incidentally your heart, behind, it all seems quite trivial.
Purists will have a lot to say about this version of La Bohème – the production certainly does not shy away from foul lyricism, but an unplugged and bare show set in the intimacy of West End is closer to Puccini’s heart-stirring masterpiece than any operatic venue can ever be.
Opera does not always need imperious venues, rhapsodic orchestras and foreign flights of lyricism
All you need to enjoy opera is to be thrown into the experience that it can stir. It awakens something in all of us.
Spreadbury-Maher and Marriott have painted a compelling, powerful and relevant piece, the mastery of a story that still has something to say to haughty millennials, lovers and opera purists alike.