After the success of Dido and Aeneas, Silent Opera return to the Old Vic Tunnels with an adaptation of Puccini’s Romantic popular opera La Boheme.
Arguably one of Pucini’s most popular operas, La Boheme follows the love story between beautiful Mimi and penniless writer Rodolfo. The opera’s melodic vocal lines play between drama and comedy, with leitmotifs supporting dramatic moments in the narrative. La Boheme is overwhelmed by an attention to sentiment and a deliberately reductive portrayal of bohemian life, which brings an epic scale to an otherwise ‘local’ story featuring ordinary people as its protagonists.
In director Daisy Evans’s adaptation, Mimi is a talented fashion graduate overcome by anorexia and Rodolfo a comic-book writer living in a squat; there’s tattoo parlour and late night club cues; it’s a version that brings popular culture into opera, rebooting Romanticism for the digital age.
Initially set in 1830s Paris, Puccini’s opera is inspired by Henry Murger’s stage adaptation of La Vie de Boheme, a series of unrelated sketches of bohemian life in the Latin Quarter of Paris. La Boheme rests between lyricism and drama, its plot focused on the development of characters rather than solely on the tragedy that engulfs them. Silent Opera’s adaptation builds on these theatrical roots through its concentration on expressing the internal life of the characters, but also in its site-specificity and the proximity it allows to both the story and its environment. Whilst the singing is live, it’s mixed with pre-recorded music and transmitted via wireless headphones, which creates both a feeling of closeness and a sense of distance from it at the same time.
Although this version remains loyal to the overarching narrative of the opera, there’s a strong emphasis on adaptation which merges the social context with the story itself, matching the timbre of a scene with its drama. It’s a performance that flows skilfully from humour to tragedy, whilst creating nuanced and particular atmospheres in each of the settings to ground the stylistic changes. With such a young cast, the singing can be uneven, but there’s particular attention paid to not allowing any essentialism to overwhelm the story. The most enjoyable performances come from Oliver Dunn as an excellent Marcello, grave in timbre and imposing in stature, an eclectic Rodolfo played by Alaistair Bloom and an energetic and dangerous Musetta played by Jenny Stafford. Emily Ward’s Mimi is nuanced, displaying a necessary fragility, but at times she seems too distant from her tragedy.
Evans’ La Boheme is underlined by a concept that never feels forced, packed with references and an ambition to bring opera out of its shell. This means that there is an inevitable essentialism to the adaptation, but at the same time it shows the possibilities of such proximity and a complex breaking down of different performative elements: music and image, character and setting. The performance has an infectious energy, reminiscent of the award-winning musical Rent, which took a similar approach to upgrading Puccini’s classic to contemporary times for a wider audience. If the social context of Rent brought a stronger dramaturgy, focusing on AIDS and its tragic effects, this is where Silent Opera’s La Boheme is rather thin: fashion seems trivial rather than essential, and provides a light-heartedness to the adaptation which is impossible to shake-off. This means the melodrama can feel heavy-handed, and there’s moments when the pacing suffers.
At times there’s an attempt to flesh out the technological element of the production, and this is certainly where the potential of the concept is most underexplored. The adverts which are broadcast during the interval, immersing the audience deeper into Mimi’s world, are highly effective, yet the performance stays away from any deconstructions of its own form, which feel essential to its sustainability. Although the promenade nature of the performance is thought-through, it remains rather clunky, making for awkward gaps and pauses that break us from the story. Nevertheless, this La Boheme never gets too cool, instead it focuses on bringing the opera to life in a considered and ambitious manner, using its concept as a legitimate form rather than gimmick.
Silent Opera have crafted a solid adaptation of Puccini’s opera, bringing a much needed popular element to such a Romantic opera, and extending the audience of a form prone to such playful explorations. With more rigour in its deconstruction and more exploration of the possibilities offered by the technology, Silent Opera are certainly on their way to crafting an exciting mode of presenting opera.