Scottish Opera peek above the parapet with an all-time operatic classic!
This September, Scottish Opera threw open the curtain on one of the world’s most beloved operas, a Monday nighter as they say, emerging from the gloom and despair of global lockdown with a production of La Bohéme which seemed ever the more moving from a car park than perhaps it could of ever endeavoured to be within the grand four walls of the Theatre Royal.
(Those resistant to spoilers beware…)
The stage consists of an array of head-turning DIY sets, which I’m informed by an usher form the arenas for each act, and after a largely unnoticed pre-show from Samuel Sakker and Roland Wood, as Rodolfo and Marcello respectively, the orchestra burst out with the famous tantalising, attention-seizing theme. Duh dum dum dum! Duh dum dum dum!
The theme itself is actually lifted from a student composition of Puccini’s written whilst studying at the Milan conservatory – his Capriccio sinfonico – which sounds ever the more impactful pounded out of Scottish Opera’s impressive array of speakers and sound equipment, with the orchestra mysteriously but, necessarily, positioned in the warehouse studio behind!
Giacomo Puccini - Cappricio Sinfonico (1883)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZmBTAO8N4nk (listen from 3:38!)
Instantly apparent is the power of Roland Wood’s (Marcello) voice, also showcased as Scarpia in Scottish Opera’s widely acclaimed Tosca last year – and the clarity and brightness in Samuel Sakker’s (Roldolfo). As the Glasgow wind pounds the gazebo, perhaps the pair, who are admirably at home in these conditions, are helped along by this in their acting – which is superb. We all feel that Parisian December chill and I quickly don my jacket myself!
Amanda Holden’s translation of the original Italian libretto is an instantly appealing feature of the production, with ‘you’re a fanny’ and ‘sod off, you bawbag’ being two of my own particular favourites – though I must say, I would take “Merry Christmas” over the largely dissatisfying – perhaps even lame – “Happy Christmas” any day of the week - really Amanda?
With the introduction of Colline and Schaunard, the costumes instantly pique our interest – if not already by Roland’s amusing painter decorator look - with David Ireland (Colline) donning what can only be described as a pair of grey pyjamas and Arthur Bruce (Schaunard), taking on the more inspired dress of half cowboy, half circus master perhaps, with a shirt not too dissimilar to Billy Connolly’s during his infamous stand-up show, An Audience with Billy Connolly in 1985. The comical squeaky voice Arthur employs whilst telling the others of his mischievous ill-doings, also characteristic of his portrayal of Gianni Schicchi in the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland’s production back in 2019, is similarly brilliant, bringing a witty intensity and drama to the supporting role – a future Marcello? I would bet on it.
With the onset of Roldolfo’s famous ‘Che gelida manina’ aria, or ‘What a frozen little hand’ in this case, the English translation blatantly drops particular challenges at Samuel Sakker’s door, but he copes magnificently in the Glasgow elements, of course answered by Elizabeth Llewellyn’s (Mimi) heart-tugging rendition of the equally prolific ‘Si, mi chiamano Mimi’, which in these conditions is ever the more moving.
One particular question that pops into my mind at this stage however concerns the presence of Jessica Rhodes (Actor/Dancer/Movement Director), who appears dancing to the music, and whose role in this act escapes me – it is perhaps even distracting. Is Jessica an onlooker responding to the drama like us? Present in the Parisian scene? Or merely a physical manifestation of the inner psychology of the characters on stage. I’m not too sure, but her performance is convincing nonetheless.
Act II is bursting with humorous references to the current pandemic as the characters take their seat in a socially distanced dining room whilst Rhodes – whose role as waitress within the scene now justifies her presence much more succinctly – rushes about with a flurry of hand sanitisers and cleaning products. The action brings with it a number of questions though, amongst them:
1. Did Colline snack on Tesco Watermelon Fingers in the original? And has he really come out in his pyjamas?
2. When was the last time Arthur Bruce (Schaunard) practiced these barre chords?
3. What exactly led Francis Church (Alcindoro) to choose those very…feline-themed socks.
Despite, or you could say in accordance with, his socks though, Francis Church’s Mr Bean-like confusion throughout this entire scene is fantastic, and as he munches down on his pork pie, he deservedly has the audience in hysterics much more than once. Adding to this is the genius of his costume as he stands donned in a white turtleneck, leopard-print blazer, slip-ons and overwhelmed by designer bags and fixings.
Rhian Lois (Mussetta) is the star of the act though, and is instantly captivating from the moment she steps out with a superb rendition of Mussetta’s infamous waltz, infuriating her lover, Roland Wood (Marcello), whose voice bellows from the side-lines.
At the introduction of the (social-distanced!) marching band, in this adaption without toys and crowds, there are some synchronisation and balance issues between band and orchestra, though in these circumstances this is to be expected. The band is a delightful touch - I'm sure Puccini wouldn't mind.
Act III sees us turn 90 degrees to witness Mimi pleading to Marcello as Jessica’s role once again becomes unclear – this time acknowledged by Mimi for a moment, but still a seemingly separate entity. I wish more was done to help us understand her presence, but despite this, the act showcases a strong performance from the quartet of friends, with Rhian Lois (Mussetta) and Elizabeth Llewellyn (Mimi) in particular shining once again, and Roland Wood (Marcello) showing that he is at home both as the warm, affectionate friend and the boisterous, jealous brute, forcefully declaring Rhian Lois (Mussetta) a ‘slapper!’ at the close of the act. The two sides of the character, as is often the case with baritone roles.
Moving into the final act, on one hand the drama is bolstered by the wind, however, it perhaps spoils the classic, poignant intimacy of Mimi’s reiteration of ‘What a frozen little hand’ as she lies dying of consumption – though I don’t feel anybody in this audience minds!
With Jessica Rhodes (Actor/Dancer/Movement Director) now returning to the stage to comfort the distraught Samuel Sakker (Roldolfo) as actor once more donned in all sorts of PPE, the final stage picture leaves us with one very clear message, infectious diseases are a real b*tch.
All in all, this production of La Bohéme is a fantastic response from Scottish Opera to the current global situation – perhaps much more opera should be done in this way, away from the grandeur of the theatre, there is something undoubtedly moving about the harsh, industrial (and windy!) backdrop to this witty production. Scottish Opera emerges from lockdown as strident as ever, opera in Scotland survives!