As I make my way to St Leonard’s Church, east London, I’m confronted with the unmistakable sight and smells of Shoreditch on a Saturday night: the streets are thronging with drunk students seemingly attempting to live out the skint Amy Winehouse lifestyle, with a rollie in one hand and a Stella in the other. It seems that London’s corner of commodified authenticity is still very much alive and kicking.
In this self-professed centre of bougie artistic types, it isn’t difficult to imagine that a visit from a new tour of La Bohème – the tale of four young bohemian creatives living downtrodden in mid-nineteenth-century Paris – would go down a treat. It is even less difficult to imagine when you see that the company, edgy newcomers Barefoot Opera, promise a “youthful new production of Puccini’s classic love story”. (Indeed, the cast, largely made up of recent graduates, is markedly younger than the experienced performers on show at the Royal Opera House’s new production a couple of miles to west.)
But think again. Those in the audience inside St Leonard’s Church are, largely, just a more ‘well-worn’ version of what I imagine the Opera House’s regulars to be. All hornrimmed spectacles and corduroy history lecturer chic, they lack the worn-out converses and leather skirts which fill the streets outside. What’s more, the shabby interior of the church itself is a fitting refute to the veneer of faux-authenticity that characterises most of the local clubs and bars of the area. The flaking paintwork and melted wax down the walls creates an odd cocoon of charming authenticity within a whirlpool of cheap imitation. And the same could be said of the opera.
For Barefoot’s La Bohème is a startlingly engaging performance full of passionate intensity and an electric joie de vivre. Its small cast are certainly not lacking in oomph: along with just four accompanying musicians, their soaring crescendos are enough to fill the lofty church several times over. Lucy Ashton provides a particularly impressive debut as Mimi; she sings of “sewing the sight of spring” with a full-blooded soprano voice oozing life and character.
Despite its limited cast and minimal staging, the production captures the vibrancy of city life. Director Jenny Miller says she aimed “to allow this opera, so often predictably staid and performed by stars in their forties, a sense of real youthfulness,” and through her creative use of movement and choreography, a market scene is transformed into something dynamic and alive. Mid-aria, a sultry and unruly Musetta, played by the excellent Kayleigh McEvoy, jumps aboard a table as its contents come crashing down to let out a wild yet skillfully-executed high note which narrowly avoids becoming a shriek.
In its immediacy and chaos, we are reminded that what sets La Bohème apart from its rivals as one of the greatest ever on-stage love stories is not that the lovers are held back by society’s barriers – but that they are set too free.
But for all its energy, the production still manages to capture the tragic and tender core of the story: the gradual realization by the opera’s central couple that their romance is not meant to be – Mimi has contracted tuberculosis and Rudolfo, her lover, cannot afford the necessary medicine.
The scene when Andrew McGowan’s largely convincing – if faintly awkward – Rudolfo achingly confides the truth to the audience, all the while contrasted by Marcello’s (Oscar Castellino) crisp and biting baritone, is particularly memorable. The closing deathbed duet is as refreshing as it is touching.
The production’s dark and demure staging, emphasized all the more in St Leonard’s tattered interior, is the perfect contrast to the young romance played out on stage. (In fact, the whole harshness-of-the-cold-and-cruel-city vibe is really brought home by the police sirens wailing outside the church during the final scene – like an unwelcome soprano
being added to the cast.)
“It’s a little shabby but it’s cheap and good quality”: the translation projected onscreen during the market scene is a character’s dialogue from a bartering sketch, but she could just as well have been speaking of the production – which, for around £20, is a reviving and warming opera of talented young performers which still manages to pack a punch.
More than that, Barefoot’s La Bohème is also an uplifting reminder of the joy that comes with being young, free, and having nothing at all except little money and big ideas. Maybe I
should join those broke students on Shoreditch High Street after all.
La Bohème is at Wolfson College, Oxford on 14 October.