Saturday, 29 January 2011

La Boheme at Soho Theatre

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I have to admit I was worried about the young and updated production of La Boheme. For some reason this opera by Puccini gets the most amount of abuse in the hands of modernisers. I guess it's because the story of the opera is easy to adopt to modern life; a love story between two young people, an impoverished writer and an equally poor flower girl.

I also knew this production would be sung in English, and that some of it would be set in the bar of the theatre. I told my mum, who's seen La Boheme more times than I'v had birthdays (OK that may be a bit of an exaggeration, but you get the idea), that it may be awfully awful of awfully wonderful.

When we entered the theatre through the noisy bar I thought it might be the former. We were told to go upstairs to the second floor, and that it was free seating. I didn't translate that one to my Finnish mother, I just made sure we were close to the doors when a queue started forming in the stairwell (the English!). Once inside the auditorium I chose seats on the third row (and how English am I?), but my mother spotted two seats in the front row, so off we went. To say we were close to the action is a bit of an understatement. Had we've been able to sing (which we sadly can't AT ALL) we'd been on the stage.

When the music started I wanted to close my eyes. I have to admit, I'm a bit of a traditionalist when it comes to opera. I love my dramas to be set in olden times, when consumption was a woman-killer and when men fell in love and carried the financial burden of a marriage (or kept a courtesan in champagne and pretty dresses). The idea of equality between sexes can spoil the plot of most 19th century operas. Which is why trying to set a Puccini opera in Soho in 2011 is more than a little demanding.

But, with a young, excellent cast and good direction, it can be done.

As advertised the second scene was in the crowded bar. Although a good gimmick, this was largely unnecessary. It was fun, but placed a real strain on the singers voices, something that didn't improve the quality of the performance.

Still, in spite of all of this, both my mother and I enjoyed La Boheme immensely; it may have been because we both knew the opera so well that we loved it so. We knew tragic problems that faced both Mimi and Rodolfo, so we weren't really concerned whether the plot was credible. As long as the singers were in character, and could sing, we filled in the void of the story with our experience. Also, we fully believed that a young girl could die of a slight cough, whereas some of the more sceptical members of the audience clearly had trouble understanding the seriousness of the final scene of La Boheme.

But even the sniggering young women in the seats behind didn't stop us older ladies shedding a tear during the pertinent arias, and that's good enough for me.

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