“People’s reaction to opera the first time they see it is very dramatic. They either love it or hate it. If they love it, they will always love it. If they don’t, they may learn to appreciate it, but it will never become part of their soul.” This is probably the most profound sentence uttered in the movie ‘Pretty Woman’. I remember my first opera, ‘Carmen’ at the ENO. I will not say it changed my life, but I was totally hooked on opera as an art form afterwards. Everyone should have a way into the wonderful world of opera, and one of the best I can recommend is at the Trafalgar Studios where they are currently staging Opera Undone: Tosca & La bohème sung in English, the two operas have been reviewed and re-written, bringing them firmly up to date, as individual one-hour productions.
The night begins with Tosca. In his studio, the painter Mario Cavaradossi (Roger Paterson) is working on a portrait of a lady. The lady is beautiful and is real, being the sister of Angelotti, a man hunted by The Mob. Cavaradossi is helping him escape but before he can do anything, his girlfriend the renowned and fiery singer Floria Tosca (Fiona Finsbury) bursts in demanding to know if he has been cheating on her. He reassures her and the two arrange to meet later that night after her show. Unfortunately, for Cavaradossi, the mob are onto him and Baron Scarpia (Hugo Herman Wilson) makes a deal with Tosca to put the painter in his, and his ruthless assistant, Spoletta’s, (Philip Lee) hands. Tosca realises what she has done, and tries to save her man from the mobsters. Scarpia offers her a deal that will enable Cavaradossi to go free, but will she be able to go through with it?
After the interval, we were back with one of my favourite operas, La bohème. Two young men Marcus (Michael Georgiou) and Rodolfo (Roberto Barbaro) are sitting starving and freezing in their flat on Christmas Eve. Marcus has had enough and decides the boys should go out for a pint. Rodolfo agrees but says he has one more scene to finish then will join his friend. However, after Marcus leaves, Rodolfo quickly forgets his play and gets on his phone as he has arranged a hook up with a young man Mimi (Philip Lee). The boys, sensing there is more in the air than just lust, express feelings for each other and instead of heading to bed, they go to the pub to meet Marcus who, after a pint or two, is pretty down in the dumps. He explains to Mimi that he has recently split up with his girlfriend. At that moment, Melissa (Honey Rouhani) the girl in question, bursts into the pub creating havoc and lust among the other drinkers, jealousy for Marcus and amusement for Rodolfo and Mimi. Four young people, searching for true love amid the chaos and distractions of everyday life. What does destiny have in store for them?
First off, I have to say a huge Bravo to Director Adam Spreadbury-Maher and Musical Director David Eaton, for the fantastic job of turning two full-length operas into one-hour shows, with an updated storyline and libretto that reflect the world today but remain faithful to the heart of the original stories. In addition, considering both operas are tragedies – no spoilers but considering the number of characters, the body count at the end is pretty impressive – there is an amazing amount of humour in both that really works to keep the mood light and fun for much of the time. However, when things turn dark, the atmosphere really changes and the emotions become very acute, with a sniffle or two heard at the end of La bohème.
There are two casts for each show and the cast I saw was fabulous. I am not enough of an opera aficionado to be able to confirm that every note was perfect, but it certainly sounded that way to me. I really loved everything about the shows but there were a couple of standout moments for me that reminded me that opera singers are actors as well. So, and again no spoilers. In a ‘seduction’ scene Tosca looks down at Scarpia’s in his lust, there is a wonderful moment when Fiona Finsbury’s face is full of such loathing and hatred, you could imagine that Hugo Herman Wilson – looking equally real and terrible – really is in danger for his advances. Similarly, in La bohème, I spent most of the second half just wanting to hug Roberto Barbaro’s Rodolfo as his heartbreak and despair got worse. Just fantastic acting all around.
Designer Amanda Mascarenhas does wonders with very little set and clothing that is just right for the character wearing it – I adored Tosca’s purple dress – Nic Farman’s lighting is subtle and lends a touch of fun to the various scene changes.
I was once told by a rather snobbish acquaintance at the Royal Opera House that opera loses its magic unless it is sung in “La Lingua Pura”. They were talking nonsense of course. There is nothing wrong with making opera accessible and understandable and Opera Undone really does that to a fine degree. My final thoughts on this wonderful show are, if you have never been to an opera, I can recommend no better way of starting your journey into this art form. And for those that are opera buffs, come along and see how opera can be as fun and relevant in the 21st century as it was in the 19th.
Review by Terry Eastham
The Olivier Award-nominated producers of 2017’s ★★★★★ smash hit La bohème present a brand new Puccini double-bill Opera Undone: Tosca & La bohème
Radically distilled to sixty minutes each and sung in English, this revolutionary new production tears up the opera rule book for a whole new generation.
Experience two enthralling tales of love, heartbreak and deception as they’ve never been told before in an evening suitable for newcomers and diehard fans alike.
The future of Opera starts here.
Please note: The show contains a loud gunshot.
Opera Undone at Trafalgar Studios
Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes (including interval)