"Triumphantly accessible, opera for everybody"
by Thomas Larque for remotegoat on 27/01/11

Telling the story of the writer Rodolfo and his doomed love affair with the attractive but seriously ill Mimi, OperaUpClose's production of Puccini's La Bohème has already become a record-breaker. Its opening run at the Cock Tavern Theatre lasted for 126 (regularly sold-out) performances over six months, which apparently makes it 'the longest continuously running opera in history'. This is its second appearance at the larger Soho Theatre.

Designed to appeal equally to opera lovers and those more usually attracted to musicals or pop concerts, this production seems to triumph on both counts. The most important element of the production's accessibility is simply the quality of the singing: perfectly pitched for the small venue, and outstandingly clear and precise, it makes the text and therefore the story easy to understand (no need for the surtitles that haunt some opera houses).

The new English libretto by director Robin Norton-Hale is witty and entertaining, without disturbing the plot or structure of the Italian original. It updates the action to twenty-first century London, and specifically to the streets outside the theatre, and there are plenty of opportunities for anachronistic humour - as characters sing with full operatic intensity about troublesome laptops or dances learned from Ann Widdecombe - but these additions are momentary, and successfully integrated into the text and music. More characteristic of this revision is the treatment of Musetta's waltz, where the original's euphemistic description of the desire that the flirtatious Musetta provokes ('examining me from head to toe ... they appreciate my charms and mysterious beauty') is made more direct and modern ('they're dreaming as they see me in my best clothes how I'd look with them off'), reinforcing the impression of Musetta's sexual self-confidence, without changing her characterisation.

The twenty-first century setting of the production helps to bring out the modernity of Puccini's characters. Although not feminist icons (Mimi risks seeming something of a doormat in returning to the jealous Rodolfo) Mimi and Musetta are strong independent women, who choose their lovers and admirers without concern for the potentially restrictive (and traditionally patriarchal) notions of chastity, marriage, and female subordination. And, in this recessionary climate, life is getting harder for the poverty-stricken artist and student 'Bohemians' of the title. Mimi's failure to seek treatment for her tuberculosis is briefly but convincingly explained by her status as an illegal immigrant (a Ukranian cleaner: the modern equivalent of the labouring female underclass to which Puccini's Mimi - a seamstress - belonged).

The casts for this production rotate to protect their voices, but the actors that I saw were uniformly excellent. The male 'Bohemians' were extremely funny in their male bonding and ritualised banter, and switched easily to deep emotion when the plot required it. Rosie Bell's Musetta was suitably sultry and outspoken, with her (rather changeable) heart on her sleeve, and Susan Jiwey as the more introverted Mimi was convincingly smitten by Robin Bailey's Rodolfo.

Even more than the sum of its impressive parts, this is a wonderful production, and deserves to be seen.

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Other recent reviews by Thomas Larque
Romeo and Juliet An unpretentious but affecting production
Twelfth Night Disappointing, but moments of inspiration
And Then They Came For Me. Documentary theatre at its best