Vignette’s apocalyptic La Bohème in an Underground Bunker

Puccini, La Bohème: New production by Andrew Staples with soloists and orchestra conducted by Steven Moore. Village Underground, Shoreditch, London, 26.7.2011. (JPr)

Picture © Vignette Productions

There is an ever-increasing choice of summer opera these days and joining this eclectic mix are two dates by Vignette Productions with their entertaining La Bohème prior to a visit to Cambridge and festival performances in France.

Now in its second summer of opera Vignette is the brainchild (along with Nick Pawlik) of the tenor Andrew Staples – not an ageing singer on the verge of retirement, but a young singer with his own flourishing career. He looks a bit like a young Orson Welles who also went his own way from quite a young age, and all credit to Mr Staples – who does not sing in this himself – for his enterprise. He appears to give the – always much needed – opportunity to young singers from the UK’s music colleges to gain valuable performing experience.

The Village Underground venue itself was interesting enough: down a side road at a point where the wealthy City of London meets the less well-heeled East End. It was opened in 2007; four old tube trains on the roof provide accommodation for working artists whilst a renovated old warehouse below provides a venue for theatre, concerts and club nights. Once inside there was quite a similarity with the much more formal Snape Maltings through a similarly shared expanse of bare brickwork. Here, of course, there is no formality and seating was random; the last time I heard so many empty beer bottles rattling around I was in Verona at the opera in the outdoor arena.

We certainly were not going to be in eighteenth-century Paris and the pre-publicity for this first of only two performances at this venue stated as much. In brief we were in a world that has been ravaged by some form of apocalypse – either a natural catastrophe or war – where famine and disease are rife and those who are sick are ruthlessly dealt with to avoid further infection. A few survivors (the ‘bohemians’) attempt to carry on normal life against what is a bleak future for them all. Lighting and sound effects underpinned this throughout the evening to enhance the atmosphere that we were in the midst of Orwell’s dystopian ‘1984’ – remodelled with added virus – for 2011.

It is difficult to describe adequately Andrew Staples’ La Bohème ‘experience’ and you had to be there. To gain entry to the performance space the audience passes through a decontamination unit to check for signs of disease using an ear temperature probe! Once inside the opera was performed in three separate areas, part of an underground bunker (I guess) at the furthest end for Acts I and IV chock-full of scavenged bits-and-bobs and a prominent settee where Rodolfo and Mimì get ‘acquainted’ after they first meet and on which she later expires. Act II took place against an illuminated art installation of – what appeared to be – the bottoms of wine bottles. Some of this was knocked over by the milling audience and needed rebuilding before this act’s music began. Act III was back towards where we had all come in and represented a checkpoint complete with metal barriers. The singers moved through those watching to make their entries and exits and in order to follow what happened next everyone needed to move their chairs or stand up. Dotted around were white mannequins with satellite dishes or screens for heads … more ‘Big Brother’ images of course. The performance began as a girl in the audience starts to cough horribly and collapse off her chair onto the floor before her lifeless body is removed by two men with masks. Much the same happens to Mimì at the end of the opera.

Truth be told, I’m not certain quite so many were expected to be there and the evening had a sort of happy-go-lucky Edinburgh Fringe quality to it but it was involving, entertaining, thought-provoking and moving in equal measure. I am sure it was not to everyone’s taste; certainly a doyen of music appreciation, John Amis, looked a little confused at times and, I guess, it was not opera as he knew it from his days on BBC radio’s My Music­. But most of the young audience revelled in what they saw.

It would not have been quite so memorable if it were not for the well-cast group of young singers, proving once again, what endless talent there is at UK music colleges. It would be nice if they were given more of a chance by some of the mainstream companies before they immediately look abroad for their casts. Of course, most of these singers are not the ‘real deal’ yet, but to improve you need to perform – and once again all credit to Andrew Staples for setting up this company that allows them to do just that.

Alistair Digges was an ardent, Italianate Rodolfo and all he requires is a little more freedom at the top of his voice. Both Ilona Domnich’s appealing Mimì and Keri Fuge’s rock-chick Musetta have strong expressive voices with secure top notes. Matthew Sprange was a sympathetic Marcello and Richard Latham as Schaunard, Timothy Dickinson as Colline and Samuel Pantcheff as Benoit and Alcindoro sang with youthful enthusiasm and provided good support. Most seemed natural singing-actors – or looked as if they were developing that way.

La Bohème is nothing if Puccini’s music isn’t allowed to be given its ‘voice’, and here in Jonathan Dove’s reduction with a few small cuts in Act II and an orchestra of only 18 it sounded as good as could be hoped, but better than I have heard some Puccini played by a much larger group of musicians. A former Jette Parker Young Artist, Steven Moore, drew a remarkably warm-hearted and generous reading from his small band that allowed every emotion to grow and deepen instinctively.

I have often thought there is a limit to the number of La Bohèmes I can take but Andrew Staples’ version revived the opera for me, even if his epidemic didn’t do the same for Mimì! Look out for this and further Vignette offerings if you can get there, it will be well worth it on this showing.

Jim Pritchard

Postscript: The opera was sung in Italian with a very loosely translated libretto projected onto the walls of the Village Underground venue. One of the best moments was in Act I when Schaunard arrives with some food and a makeshift table is laid. They don’t have a tablecloth so Marcello and Colline suggest ‘Use the News of the World’ to which Rodolfo replies ‘An excellent newspaper!’ ……… It  was that sort of evening.

For more news of Vignette Productions visit the website