United Kingdom English National Opera’s ‘Drive & Live’ La bohème: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of English National Opera / Martyn Brabbins (conductor). Alexandra Palace, London, 23.9.2020. (JPr)
Director – PJ Harris
Production Design – Chloe Lamford
Costumes – Camilla Clarke
Lighting – Natasha Chivers
Sound design – Ian Dearden
Translator – Amanda Holden
Choreographer – Dannielle ‘Rhimes’ Lecointe
Mimì – Natalya Romaniw
Rodolfo – David Butt Philip
Marcello – Roderick Williams
Musetta – Soraya Mafi
Colline – William Thomas
Schaunard – Benson Wilson
Benoît – Trevor Eliot Bowes
Alcindoro – John Savournin
Parpignol – David Newman
Dancers – Jackie Kibuka (Dance Captain), Corinne Holt, Kennedy Harris, Zion Battles, David Cottle (Producer for Scanner’s Inc – Kate Scanlan)
Uber is the official partner of English National Opera’s ‘Drive & Live’ and looking in at the array of socially distanced – high end range – cars at Alexandra Palace it was clear that it was not WeBuyAnyCar.com who had put in the money! Cynic that I am I did not expect Sky Arts to show this ‘live’ – though it was advertised as such – but on one of the worst days for weather in recent months, the wind and sheeting rain clearly showed was the same evening, even if delayed by 30 minutes maybe. Okay, it must have been bad enough for the car owners who probably had their wipers on most of the time but pity the poor singers, dancers, conductor (on a scissor lift) and his orchestra (on two levels of scaffolding behind the stage).
I understand this La bohème was rehearsed and is being performed by two ‘bubbles’ consisting of 34 orchestra members, 20 chorus members, 8 principals and a crew. I just wonder what audience ENO’s return to live opera – albeit within these Covid-secure guidelines and nobody getting unsuitably close to one another – had attracted? I suspect many were there mainly for the novelty of the occasion. Trevor Eliot Bowes (spitting image of a young Hugh Laurie) as security guard-cum-landlord Benoît began by saying ‘Hallo, if you can hear me honk your horn … my name’s Ben I’m head of security here at Ally Pally (as it is known) and also head of announcements and told to read this … Welcome to English National Opera’s “Drive & Live” performance of La bo [pause] hème. Tune your radio to 87.7FM and adjust the volume so you are listening at the optimum level. So, don’t forget to wear your face masks when you are outside your car’.
There seems that there were ‘Uber Boxes’ for special people without their own cars at the front and there were allocated spaces for those riding up the hill to Ally Pally on their bikes, otherwise it was bring your own – car that is – at a fixed price of £100 per vehicle. I could see surtitles above what looked like a stage more commonly seen at Glastonbury, as well as, the obligatory large screens on either side of it that you would see there too. I was reminded of John Lennon’s famous quote from a 1963 Royal Variety Performance: ‘Would the people in the cheaper seats clap your hands? And the rest of you, if you’ll just rattle your jewellery’. Here possibly only the cyclists could clap whilst everyone else could, indeed, only honk their horn
A feature of this La bohème is that some characters come up or down from the stage or roam around the parked cars and indeed Rodolfo’s first entrance is when he cycles back from his part-time job delivering takeaways. He hopes to be a playwright but earns additional money writing newspaper reviews. Home isn’t a Parisian garret but a Volkswagen campervan in a car park much the same as the opera was being performed in. It is surrounded by a couple of others and appears to be part of a commune of some sort peopled by those at the fringes of society.
Inside one of the vans, seamstress Mimì is already to be seen stitching, the ‘painter’ Marcello seems to be a real hippie, whilst ‘philosopher’ Colline is a videographer continually filming all that happens and we get to see some of his black-and-white footage from time to time. Schaunard is a trombonist who returns with some desperately needed cash to spend on food. During the opera my mind wandered back to last year in Bayreuth when Tobias Kratzer’s Tannhäuser had some of the tropes I was seeing from PJ Harris.
Amanda Holden has adapted her existing English translation and it all begins with reference to the ‘dreadful weather’ and Marcello goes on to sing ‘They’ll be a flood, and somebody will drown’. However, soon – in this updated scenario – Rodolfo is tearing up a hardcopy of his play to fan the flames in a brazier, the landlord/security guard is referred to as Monsieur Benoît, and Mimì is still allowed her candle! Who thought an opera about a respiratory disease was suitable at this moment in time with the world as it is? In fact, Mimì’s tuberculosis should have been Covid-19 and Musetta could have sold her precious possessions at the end to buy Mimì a dose of vaccine and she could have recovered for a happy ending with Rodolfo calling her name in delight rather than despair! We need more happy endings and if we can change Carmen’s then why not La bohème (or La traviata)?
Anyway I digress, Mimì enters Rodolfo’s life and entices him away from the laptop (something that is not happening to me much these days). Café Momus is an ice cream/snack van in the midst of a Pride parade which includes some street dancing and hip hop choreographed by Dannielle ‘Rhimes’ Lecointe. Why, you – as I – may wonder? We saw Alcindoro (revealed as a rich married man) and his ‘bit on the side’, the fun-loving Musetta, entering late in his Mercedes (number plate BIG AL) before the music started. Mimì’s cough worsens and – resonating with 2020 – Rodolfo sings ‘Spasms of dreadful coughing have her tossing and turning while the fever’s burning. Death casts its shadow’. For the Act III events a huge glitter ball mimics the snow of a traditional production and Benoît – in the background – can be seen forcibly evicting Mimì from her van by removing all her possessions, though it is to the empty van she returns to die. Eventually the stage clears to leave the lovers – still unable to touch of course – alone and the ending of the opera turns out to be as deeply moving as ever, despite both singers probably being drenched due to rain. Grief-stricken Rodolfo flees through the cars.
Commenting on what I saw is easier than writing about what I heard as I was somewhat removed from it by microphones, loudspeakers, and the elements all concerned were battling. It is much to my regret that I have only seen Natalya Romaniw once and that also was as Mimì with English National Opera (review click here) when I wrote ‘all the praise you can read elsewhere about this fine singer is thoroughly deserved based on this heartfelt performance’. Ditto! Another standout performer was Roderick Williams who until recently I have always more associated with Lieder than opera, but I am beginning to realise what a remarkable (somewhat underrated still?) singing actor Williams is and he brought Marcello to real life. As for David Butt Philip as Rodolfo, he impressed again with the warm sound and secure top notes of his lyrical tenor voice. However, I have watched him closely lately in three different performances and his vocal projection clearly betrays his background as a chorister. At the close of the opera Soraya Mafi’s Musetta affectingly expressed a deep sense of regret for her wasted good-time girl life. William Thomas sang very poignant ‘coat aria’ except this Colline seemed to be addressing it to his video camera!
All the rest of the principal cast did the best they could with what was left of their roles and together with the dancers, chorus members, orchestra and conductor (ENO’s music director Martyn Brabbins), the whole ensemble appeared to relish the opportunity to be performing for an – albeit odd – audience again. Hopefully, ENO will present a normal season in 2021-22 though I am not betting any money on it at the moment.
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