Saturday 3rd September 2016
It’s hard to believe that it’s been more than five years since we first saw La Boheme at the Soho Theatre. Little did we know that we were witnessing a phenomenon that would go from strength to strength, with both the ‘Operaupclose’ brand and the King’s Head very much alive and well (even if they have gone their separate ways).
This new version by Adam Spreadbury Maher and Becca Mariott builds on and expands a winning formula – the chance to experience the full force of operatic voices in an intimate space, with updated and audible lyrics.
We were bowled over by La Boheme in 2011, but in this version, everything has been turned up a notch. The swearing is full on but wittily used, and of course it is always a pleasure to hear a neatly placed expletive in the middle of a gorgeous operatic aria or section of recitative. The contemporary references and props are used to full comic and dramatic effect, and the ‘intimacy’ extends to some very amusing audience participation – if you sit at the end of a row expect to be on coat or drink holding duty, and one lucky man gets to be the ‘bait’ for Musetta’s attempts to make her boyfriend jealous with some outrageous flirting. The characters have been cut down to just four, giving it a clear structure and the feel of a rom-com, and there is always something going on – very rarely do the characters simply stand and sing, and when they do it is all the more powerful.
Another really important element of the story is also updated, in the form of Mimi’s ‘illness’. Here it is not just her physical but mental state that is vulnerable, and Maher and Mariott have made sense of the plot in modern terms in a way which the original couldn’t. This more sophisticated reading also gives the ending a much more powerful message about fear and acceptance and gives the characters more agency than just being victims of fate.
The production we saw was perfectly cast, with excellent performances all round. Becca Mariott not only co-wrote the new version but also plays Mimi with great insight, showing both her torment and the strength of character lying beneath. It is a hugely sympathetic performance because she is not just a victim – she is fighting until the end. Matthew Kimble as ‘Ralph’ (Rudolpho) conveys a down to earth warmth and kindness beneath the slightly nerdy exterior. Thomas Humphreys as ‘Mark’ (Marcello) conveys an effortless ‘posh-boy’ arrogance that works very well as a double-act with his flatmate. It is a delight to see his transformation to puppyish dependence when the beautiful Musetta comes onto the scene. Honey Rouhani is on sparkling form as Musetta, terrorising cast and audience alike with supreme confidence. Her set piece seduction scene is played for maximum comic effect at full tilt and provides an enthralling centre-piece to the more serious romantic entanglements that precede and follow it.
Musical Director Panaretos Kyriatzidis has brought out as much of the original beauty of the music as one can with an upright piano, ably supported by Alison Holford on cello. Both he and Maher have pulled off a great feat here, blending music and drama so well that we were completely absorbed in both – not always a feature of opera productions.
Maher and Marriot have not just given the opera a tweak to update it or superimposed a few modern references – this really is a re-imagining of the original and a fine example of the ‘intimate opera’ genre. There will be more to come and we are particularly looking forward to new version of Madame Butterfly in the Spring.