A new version of Puccini that has without doubt fulfilled OperaUpClose‘s mission to ‘bring opera to audiences who ordinarily might avoid it.’ Set in a Dalston flat and the bar of an Upper Street pub, this is certainly a welcome surprise of a production and could be the first step of this little company truly bringing opera to the masses.
This is OperaUpClose’s first production, and after picking up an Olivier for best new opera and a Whatsonstage.com award for best Off-West End production, it’s safe to say that it’s gone pretty well. After debuting in December 2010 at the Cock Tavern in Kilburn, the run lasted 6 months, transferred to the Soho Theatre and then to the King’s Head Pub Theatre as the longest continuously performed opera in history. The initial budget was only £7,000 and all participants signed up for only a share of the (hardly anticipated) profits. This is certainly an opera that has been run on passion and a prayer, which is oddly fitting for a play revolving around a bunch of penniless bohemians who we first meet burning a manuscript for warmth.
First I must make a confession. I am certainly no opera nut. I am a musicals lass through and through and have never made any real effort to see opera in the past, I was quite surprised to find that multiple casts rotate and that a full script was provided in the programme. However, as this makes me a prime candidate for OperaUpClose, I’ll not fret about it too much.
This was without doubt a fresh and relevant production. The script has been tweaked to refer to each location of the production, and the back room of the King’s Head, reminiscent of a rundown room in an old student union, with a thick layer of dust on the grand piano, seemed like an apt setting as the flat of the skint twenty-something bachelors. Being sung in English by a cast whose age reflects that of their characters has made this production youthful and accessible to a greater range of audience members. Peering around the auditorium to see a mix of pensioners and young fashionable Shoreditch-types showed just how democratic this version of opera can be.
The second act was (unexpectedly for me) performed in the bar area of the pub. These surprises and twists brought the play to life and bang up to date. It also feels like a natural interpretation of the story – huge credit must be given to Robin Norton-Hale for adapting a script first performed in 1896 to the current day so successfully that it could incorporate the word ‘chav’ without seeming at all out of place.
This is not, however, a faultless production for the have-a-go opera viewer. Audiences who do not know the story may get lost in the details of the narrative, as the diction is not the same as in traditional musicals (that’s where that script comes in handy). Also, the rotating casts that have been employed have let a mix of talents in. Most of the cast that I saw were excellent – Nicolas Dwyer as Marcello and Rosie Bell as Musetta especially stood out – yet the actor who played Rodolfo, a central character, is only credited in the programme as ‘Associate Artist’ and looked lacklustre against the rest.
It won’t have me rushing out to a major, traditional opera but has certainly taken some of the edge and fear away from the idea. Whilst I’m not ready to take the giant leap just yet, I would certainly return to one of OperaUpClose’s productions. It looks like this little company could go a long way.
La Bohème is at the King’s Head Pub Theatre (performed in rep) until May 29th.