Grimeborn Opera Festival was formed in 2007 to reimagine classics, perform little known masterpieces and encourage new work. Their aim is to make opera more accessible and take it out of the opera house and into places such as the Arcola in Dalston. This year’s festival kicked-off with Puccini’s masterpiece updated from a group of bohemians living in a garrett in 1830s Paris to a contemporary group of out of work hipsters living in an apartment somewhere not too far from the Arcola.
The set is quite basic with plastic sheeting forming walls and a number of TV’s piled up on top of each other, augmented by some chairs and tables for the various scenes. “Rodolfo” (a failed singer-songwriter rather than a poet as in the original) has his own area on the mezzanine floor of the living space he shares with “Marcel” (sic), “Colline” and “Schaunard”. As in the original they’re behind with the rent and having to stave off the landlord by getting him drunk. They also seem unable to pay the electricity bill as the power goes out, setting the scene for Rodolfo’s fatal meeting in the dark with his neighbour, illegal immigrant Mimi, who rather than being unable to re-light her candle as in the original, has a dead battery in her torch.
So although the setting has been re-imagined, John Farndon’s superb, contemporary English libretto, stays true to the original and there are no major changes to the plot. There are a few cuts, especially at the beginning and end of the second act at the café as this is one of Puccini’s big set-pieces with a cast of hundreds, parades, street-traders and a lot of children – very hard to re-create with just 10 people! But as it’s superfluous to the plot, it really isn’t missed. Here it’s replaced by the cast carrying banners and taking part in an agit-prop march through London protesting against soaring rents, unemployment etc. reflecting the times we live in.
I did though have one or two small minor quibbles about the production. Why if we’re now in 21st century London, are the names of the characters still 19th century French? I suggest it might have been due to making the words scan but “Benoit” has become “Ben” and “Alcindoro” is now “Alfie” so why not modernise the others? Also one thing that did make me smile was that Musetta (who’s a pole-dancer in this version) brings her rich lover, Alfie to the café (still called Momus). In this version rather than an expensive Parisian restaurant in the Latin Quarter, it’s a kebab shop in the East End! In the original, Alcindoro gets stuck with the an enormous bill for everyone’s food much to their great amusement; in this case it couldn’t have come to more than £30 – small change for a rich sugar daddy like Alfie!
The singing from the principles is sumptuous with special mentions for James Scarlett as a tender, loving Rodolfo and Heather Caddick who brings great warmth and sympathy to Mimi. All the rest of the cast are excellent too as is the eight piece band, conducted by Nick Fletcher, which often sounds like a full orchestra.
Tremendous praise must go to Grimeborn and the Arcola for putting on an opera festival – not an easy sell these days. “La Boheme” may have been a fairly conventional start to the programme but the rest of the festival looks exciting and innovative and deserves to be a big success if this production is anything to go by.
Review by Alan Fitter
Opera 24 and Darker Purpose Theatre Company presents La Bohème
by Giacomo Puccini in a new English version by John Farndon
Following their acclaimed production of Così Fan Tutte in 2013 (“a great evening’s entertainment” – British Theatre Guide), Opera 24 return to Grimeborn in a collaboration with Darker Purpose Theatre Company.
Four young artists, intent on pursuing their dreams, are struggling to survive in a freezing attic. The writer Rodolfo falls deeply in love with their even poorer, beautiful neighbour Mimi. But when he discovers that she is stricken by a fatal illness, nothing can ever be the same again.
Against a backdrop of soaring rents and insecure employment, Lewis Reynolds’ timely production relocates the story to 21st century London, with a witty contemporary libretto from best-selling writer John Farndon.
Heightening its intimacy with a brand new arrangement by John Jansson for 8-piece chamber orchestra, conductor Nick Fletcher brings out the rollicking comedy and ultimate tragedy of Puccini’s finely-wrought masterpiece.
Directed by Lewis Reynolds
Conductor Nick Fletcher
Translator/Adapter John Farndon
Arranger John Jansson
Photography Bob Workman
Cast: Leon Berger, Heather Caddick, Danae Eleni, Ian Helm, Cheyney Kent, Andrew McIntosh and James Scarlett.
4th to 8th August 2015
Thursday 6th August 2015