The story behind OperaUpClose's production of La Bohème, now being revived at the Charing Cross Theatre, is quite a drama itself – though luckily more Hollywood heart-warmer than operatic tragedy all’italiana.
It started life three years ago as a six-week run above an Irish pub in Kilburn. After a sell-out six months, it transferred to the Soho Theatre and, extraordinarily, won last year's Olivier award for Best New Opera – a prize otherwise monopolised by the Royal Opera House and English National Opera. Now it has come to the Charing Cross Theatre for the three months around Christmas.
The timing is no accident. La Bohème takes places in winter, and this production is all about taking realism to a new level in opera – which it does with astonishing verve. The 19th Century libretto has been translated into English and radically updated, the singers are the twenty-somethings their characters are supposed to be, and the fourth wall is torn asunder in an uproarious second act that left us buzzing with the pure joy of theatre.
It helps that Giacomo Puccini’s 1896 masterpiece is a timeless story of youth and death, simply and often humorously told with some of the composer’s most memorable music. This production was at its superb best in the more light-hearted theatrical scenes, flagging slightly in the more static, darkly lyrical third act. That said, the sombre ending, which never fails to draw a tear, was gripping.
The singers took director Robin Norton-Hale’s demands in their stride, prioritizing word and action over pure sound without, for the most part, grounding those soaring vocal lines. They’re accompanied by piano rather than orchestra, so nobody has to strain to be heard. They also managed to keep together without a conductor, which was particularly impressive in the chaotic second-act climax. There are two or three performers per part, but on Monday night Edward Hughes as Rodolfo and Rhona McKail as Mimi made a touching leading couple. Tom Stoddart’s Marcello was perhaps the vocal highlight, combining strong stage presence and diction with an unusually mellifluous baritone.
This is that rare beast – an opera production that will appeal to opera sceptics. As for opera lovers, they may find their view of La Bohème and even the art-form transformed. Every opera director wants to strike a chord with 'modern audiences', but the results often seem forced and gimmicky in the big institutional theatres, packed with the usual greying suspects. Somehow, this Bohème pulls off the trick. A contemporary classic.
La Bohème runs at the Charing Cross Theatre until 19 January 2013.