There’s something about Puccini’s La Boheme that inspires creative settings. Over the last couple of years, we’ve seen OperaUpClose perform it in a West London pub and as the first opera at Soho Theatre; in both cases the bar area itself was used for one of the acts. At the Coliseum, it was updated to the 1930s but for this version experimental opera company Vignette have pushed the action into a dystopian London set within
HipstervilleShoreditch's Village Underground.
There’s much to say about this latest production. Here are our thoughts as inspired by another great Italian drama remembered as much for its music as for its plot.
The Good: The venue design is astounding in its detail. The venue itself is a great choice: the abandoned tube trains above the Village Underground building are like something from Terry Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys. Inside, the audience walk past the stylised logo. After some fences reminiscent of a concentration camp, they are stopped by a man in a radiation suit and gas mask who runs some kind of bleeping gadget over them. Once we get in, we’re confronted by mannequins with satellite dishes for heads. The opera starts with one of the audience members coughing horribly and falling over, blood dribbling from her mouth, before Radiation Suit Man drags her off. The stage itself is a gloriously geeky miasma of abandoned tech including PC cases, cassette players and a set of bicycle-powered defibrillators.
The singers and the 18-piece orchestra are young but very skilled. Ok, so some of the Italian pronunciation veered into ‘Allo ‘Allo country but there was a strong emotional drive throughout the scenes.
The Bad: The seating arrangement is atrocious. For starters, the audience are left to find their own chairs (neatly piled up by the bar and nowhere near the stage). There are no clues of where seating is allowed and most of the audience congregate in the middle of the hall in front of the stage.
This is fine for Act I but Act II takes place - you guessed it - in the middle of the hall meaning a large number of attendees (including quite a few senior citizens) are forced to up sticks and move elsewhere, many of them onto the stage. Some of those remaining at ground level get to see little of Act III which was held at the far end of the hall while those seated on the stage are forced to make way for Act IV. Talk about musical chairs.
The Ugly: As not everyone is fluent in 19th century Italian, it may have been a smart move to provide a translation of the lyrics above the heads of the audience. Unfortunately the translation fails in both style and substance. The words are projected on a wall to the side of the audience which means constant head swivelling to appreciate both text and action.
The text itself is a shortened, sexed-up version of Puccini’s libretto, more Mick Hucknall than Prince, with edgy contemporary references to News Of The World, "chicks" and “wankers”. This leads to some unintentional humour when the lyrics describe a dying Mimi saying “I’m so cold, I wish I had my muff.” Obviously, she’s talking about a hand warmer but, for a split-second there, we had our doubts.
For the latest arts and events news, see our weekly update.
More information on Vignette productions can be found here.
Entry to the event was kindly provided by Albion Media.