I have known la boheme most of my life, the arias must be amongst the earliest music I heard and remember as it was my mother's favourite and she'd often burst into "your tiny hand is frozen" around the house! Over the years, I have listened to it countless times, seen it quite a few times and cried every time - those last two lines from Rodolfo always get me.
So, I was keen to see this production from OperaUpClose, a re-imagining of the setting and an up to date translation/adaptation from Robin Norton-Hale, played for small venues. This is the 10th anniversary of this production which has been incredily succesful, touring the UK with long stops in London and winning an Olivier Award. With a cast of just eight (six of whom carry the bulk of the show) and an "orchestra" of just one this is a chamber production that really delivers. Before moving on, I really must say how impressive Elspeth Wilkes is on the piano, providing all of the music and smiling throughout, this really is quite a feat.
The set is simple and act 2 was played in the theatre bar, thank goodness for the major refurbishment which gave them the space to achieve that as it was a lovely section - funny and engrossing. It is not often that you get the chance, as we did, to be literally next to an opera singer as they let loose - the power is quite incredible, OperaUpClose? I could count their fillings! The studio flat set wobbled a bit and seemd a little lost on the Bristol Old Vic stage, but somehow I didn't mind too much, I sort of wished was seeing this in a much smaller, more intimate, venue where I think it would be even more impressive but it was fine and the break-out to the bar was a welcome change or view.
The libretto is excellent, keeping the storyline and characters but bringing them into the modern world and thanks to the clarity of the voices I could hear and follow every word (the words are also provided in the programme). Claire Wild's Mimi and Emily-Jane Thomas' Musetta were both beautifully portrayed and wonderfully sung and the "pop-up bar person" (Marie Cayeux) was a surprise to all I think ... very clever.
All in all, an excellent evening and I shall make the effort to see more of OperaUpClose's work. If you love la boheme you will have a really great time, if you're not an opera person then why not give this a try, it is very accessible, nearer a play in its natural playing than a musical or opera, you may find yourself converted.
And yes, those last two lines, so beautifully delivered by Philip Lee, got to me again.
p.s. as is the nature of opera singing, the main parts are covered by a number of performers depending on the night you attend so you may not see the same people that I did ;-)