Scottish Opera: La bohème, Edington Street Production Studios, Glasgow *****
For “Paris, the Latin Quarter, Christmas Eve” read “Glasgow, Industrial Estate Car Park, Covid-19 lockdown.” The contrast is one of worlds removed, but in staging Puccini’s La bohème as its first serious reentry into live performance, Scottish Opera has turned a late 19th century romantic tragedy (death by consumption) into a poignant allegory of our times (fear of the coronavirus).
It’s a shared experience for absolutely everybody. The audience arrive at Scottish Opera’s production studios masked up. Stewards in protective gear scan tickets and escort us to designated seats strewn in bubbles around the spacious car park according to group size. The printed programme is made of “a synthetic material that we will fully sanitise before all performances”. Care is paramount, anxiety mildly infectious.
Before us, under a steel-framed canopy with fast-rolling rain clouds visible through the clear covering, a menagerie of articulated lorry trailers, graffiti-covered backdrops, ad hoc containers and tents and general backlot junk convey a chaotic environment for the chaotic plot to unfold in. The orchestra plays with extraordinary freshness from inside the building, conductor Stuart Stratford’s only window to the action being the giant open door.
This is an abridged version, using Jonathan Dove’s cleverly distilled orchestration and performed without interval (“I always find intervals boring”, sings one of the characters in Amanda Holden’s snappy English translation.) The sound system is impressive in its balancing of disparate forces amid an inevitable backwash of howling sirens and roaring city traffic.
But there is no sense of compromise, save the permitted size of audience (around 100). For the first time in six months I’m sensing the visceral thrill of live music, of being among a real audience, the pandemic anxiety lifting.
So the curtain rises, metaphorically, revealing a bustle of irresponsible male frivolity, as if BBC sitcom, The Young Ones, had been sanitised and set to music. They make a slick quartet: Samuel Sakker as a quicksilver Rodolfo, whose passions glow more radiant as his love for Mimi is aroused; Roland Wood, a rock-solid Marcello with an insolent spark; David Ireland casually and cheekily insinuating as the philosopher Colline; and Arthur Bruce as musician Schaunard, matching breezy theatrical energy with firmly-centred singing.
Into the mix comes Elizabeth Llewellyn’s warn-hearted Mimi, rich and resonant in tone, with a growing sense of tenderness and vulnerability as the shadow of her impending fate looms larger. The second act, focused on the boisterous tomfoolery at the Café Momus, is without a chorus, but none the worse for wear. It introduces the conceited coquetry of Musetta, lavishly conveyed by Rhian Lois’ haughty confidence. Francis Church, as her rich admirer, colours the drooling Alcindoro, a hapless victim of her money-grabbing deceit, with an entertainingly camp twist.
If Roxanna Haines’ production is fundamentally driven by the letter of the (abridged) score, a contemporary thread feeds through in the shadowy omnipresence of dancer/actor Jessica Rhodes, which finally asserts its meaning in the closing moments. Complete with NHS visor and makeshift PPE, her comforting of Rodolfo marks the only moment where one character physically touches another. The symbolism is not lost.
So well done Scottish Opera for bringing opera so powerfully back to life. On a small and artificial scale, perhaps, but a giant move in the right direction.
La bohème runs till Sun 13 September, www.scottishopera.org.uk