Puccini: La Bohème

Silent Opera

Old Vic Tunnels (Vault Theatre), London, 23 February 2012 2.5 stars

John Tomlinson and Sarah ConnollyTwo cheers, and two and a half stars, for an enterprising young company having a go at one of opera's (almost) indestructible masterpieces in a new and superficially engaging way.  

Silent Opera present La Bohème in the series of linked rooms that form the complex of tunnels under the approach to Waterloo Station.   Trains rumble and clatter overhead, the venue shakes and echoes but - or so runs the concept, as set out in the programme blurb - you "walk around with a personal soundcloud, you have a personal filmic sound world that enables you complete freedom within the world of the opera".   This is achieved by means of a pair of wireless Sennheiser headphones, handed to you as you enter the first of the four performance spaces.   A full orchestral accompaniment plays, on the 'music minus one' principle, and the live voices of the principals overlay the prerecorded sound. "Is this the future of opera?" a critic in one of the Sunday nationals asked last week.   No, is my answer, but I'll get to my reasons for this somewhat churlish response once I have considered some of the plus points of this lively evening, conceived and directed by Daisy Evans, and applauded to the rafters at the end of the evening by a predominantly young crowd.

La Bohème depends hugely on colour and atmosphere.   The colour is written in to the musical fabric, the verismo becomes the ambientismo, and the quartet of young male friends define their individual characters by the way they sing their personal narratives and relate to each other.   In the performance I attended, only Marcello (Christopher Jacklin) and Schaunard (Henry Manning) went some of the way towards projecting characters with interesting colour in their voices, characters with something to say for themselves.   I found Tim Dickinson underpowered and under-characterised as Colline and, most disappointingly of all, Alistair Digges really weak as our hero Rodolfo: no consistent sense of melodic line, a complete lack of legato and, at times, a vaguely disagreeable tenor sound.  I found myself trying to analyse at times just what was wrong with his projection: notes often started reasonably sweetly and true, but breath control and sustained singing seemed to be almost completely lacking.

This was all the more disappointing because he was cast against a Mimi who was his opposite in every respect: Emily Ward absolutely nailed the part with variety of tone and expression, terrific reserves of power and a true sense of what singing a role is all about: she projected a vocal personality that was always a pleasure to hear.  She also has the physique du role and proved highly watchable throughout.   The same was true, to a different degree, with the Musetta of Jenny Stafford: bold and brash, making up to the men in the audience who surrounded the cast in the Café Momus scene, she sang accurately and with bite, and projected her character with aplomb.   A word too for her Alcindoro, Bruno Loxton, who had a sense of vocal attack and a nice, dark timbre to his mezzo voce interjections.

But now we come to the problematic bits.   If the ‘exotick and irrational entertainment’ that is opera is to work, the separate strands have to come together, the acting, vocal projection and orchestral sound have to amount to something more than merely the sum of their parts.   The first problem I encountered was the sheer lack of aural quality in the headphone sound – the University of London Symphony Orchestra may have recorded the score beautifully for their conductor Daniel Capps but what came through my pair of Sennheiser headphones was a boxy sound, lacking all sense of aural perspective and definition.   Solo flutes and clarinets could be heard in the atmospheric interludes, but at the expense of the muted strings that all but disappeared.   This was a world away from the ‘filmic soundworld’ adumbrated in the director’s note.  So, I am sorry to have to report, the technical quality simply did not allow a proper judgement on whether the whole concept could work.   Add to the mix a degree of acoustic feedback and even hiss, when the mixing of separate sound streams went slightly awry, and you had a distinctly underwhelming sonic experience.   I found by the middle of Act One that the best way to become involved was to wear the headphones half off, allowing the live voices to fill more of the space and the orchestral accompaniment to become mere background.   For me this worked because I know the score and have heard the work many times.   A first-timer at the opera might wonder what it is really all about.

My second reservation relates much more to the concept of the staging, and whether or not it really works to have an audience follow the cast round from room to room, upstairs and down, for the climactic moments.   Take the end of Act One: whereas we normally see the slowly darkening garret as Mimi and Rodolfo wander offstage into the distance, their voices becoming ever fainter echoes, here we were all suddenly shooed downstairs by the ushers in time to see Mimi and Rodolfo against a bare wall, singing their duet: the sound track then went straight into Act Two and as the scurrying strings and brass played, we the audience were ushered in to form a large circle around a leather Chesterfield and a couple of small tables in the main bar area.   There was byplay between cast and extras, and a bit of audience involvement, but it was very staid in terms of Personenregie, the most interesting feature (to me) being a large pair of Ever Ready 9 volt batteries that seemed to be attached to the back of Musetta’s bright red evening dress – no doubt keeping her in the ‘feed’ and her body mike well supplied.   And I have to register a protest at the way Act Four was ended: after that tramping, downward orchestral postlude (of such dramatic power when phrased and articulated as it should be), the ushers sprang into life once again and herded us all back into the main bar area to allow the cast to take their curtain call.   Dramatically this was sheer bathos!

My third and final reservation concerns the updating and the bespoke translation, which I found very unidiomatic.   I have absolutely no problems with updatings of La Boheme, which can work brilliantly well, but this version did not really have the courage of its (proclaimed) convictions.   “You’re thin babes/ Oh don’t be such a flake” just doesn’t have any resonance: nor does “She’s so obsessed with weight loss/And now she can’t keep a meal down”.   But my Beckmesser’s marker chalk really came out when I heard the address to the coat in Act Four being rendered as “You never waver/Under the strain of capitalist pressure”.   Oh dear, oh dear.

So, I found much wrong with the experience as a whole.   On the other hand, bits worked: close proximity to young actors and opera singers is always interesting, and there was – now and again – a real sense of gain from being fly on the wall at various key moments.   I enjoyed most of all the Marcello/Mimi duet in Act Three: this suddenly gained in dramatic intensity and a sense of narrative perspective emerged – it was also the best passage of singing in the entire evening.   One doesn’t have to be in the Vault for this sort of experience: there used to be opera evenings in the Chelsea Arts Club which had exactly the same sense of involvement and dramatic intimacy, and a visit to Iford plunges you right in the middle of a live sound world that can be immensely exciting.   But if Silent Opera can work on the technology, can genuinely create an orchestral soundscape that is lush and dynamically supportive of its solo singers, then I for one shall return one day – for there is something to applaud, even if – in all honesty – I cannot be that enthusiastic at this stage.

By Mike Reynolds