Friday 26 October 2012

La Boheme in Oxford

To Oxford's New Theatre for WNO's revival of Annabel Arden's production of Puccini's La Boheme. The New Theatre is a curious place, a 1930's cinema with very narrow foyer space and apparently no pit, as the orchestra were on the floor in the stalls (with seats removed). I did wonder what the balance would be like Wagner or one of the bigger Strauss operas. Listening to the overture, it struck me that it was a long time since I had seen this opera. And quite how perfect, of its kind, it is.

With La Boheme there is no fat, no waste, the score is relatively short and perfectly constructed, Puccini gives us just what we need and no more. Listen to the end of act 1, for instance, and consider how the later Puccini (of Madama Butterfly) or one of his contemporaries might have been tempted to stretch things out more.

Partly because of this tightness of construction, the opera rather resists re-definition. Directors can de-construct things partially, but La Boheme is tightly bound to its setting. It needs bohemians or students, it needs cold flats and high spirits, whether in the 1850's or the 1950's.

One of the most memorable productions that I saw was a previous incarnation of the opera at the London Coliseum which ran without an interval with the scenes blending into each other (the end of act 2 / beginning of act 3 had the waiters of the cafe Momus stripping the tables at dawn). It gave the opera a modern feel which was surprising. Though I note that in later revivals, an interval appeared. An even earlier production by a French team at the Coliseum used moments when the crowds were frozen and other ideas, which again provided an interesting slant on the opera (though again, the production was altered in revival).

Every opera company needs a production of La Boheme. And they need a production which is highly reviveable and will appeal to the audiences of Middle England. La Boheme is one of the operas which everyone wants to see, the choice of those who come to opera only rarely. Some of the original reviews of the first night of Annabel Arden's production in June this year seemed to be disappointed that she had not produced edgier. But the production serves its purpose well, thoughtful and attractive it was aimed not at picky critics but at the varied audience which filled the New Theatre, in Oxford. They were very appreciative and it was fascinating to hear snaps of people's discussions about the opera as I walked back the station.

A full review will appear on

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