I caught the final Boheme in a run at King's Head Theatre at the weekend. This isn't the long-running, genre-defining Opera Up Close version but rather the King's Head Theatre's own production in a new adaptation by their director Adam Spreadbury-Maher.
We haven't quite reached the end of the new wave that began above a pub in Kilburn - and in the pub in Kilburn - that pioneered bijou, site-specific, alternative productions in vernacular translation that's taken opera out to IKEA, Victorian tunnels, an asylum chapel, the workplace and the street. However the comparison between the Opera Up Close Boheme I saw in 2010 and this latest version is worth considering for a moment.
What's changed then? Well, The King's Head cut the opera down beyond even the arrangement, removing characters to leave a cast of four - Marcello, Rodolfo, Mimi & Musetta. Most of the time this means removing sequences or even scenes, occasionally just re-appropriating music to a different character or the band. Interestingly, the band has grown 100% from Up Close, the piano being joined by a cello (the string instrument a pleasant addition, both focusing the intimacy of the drama and also seasoning the Gallic flavour in Puccini's Parisian score). The playing has improved beyond measure from the first experiments. No-one leaves the single-set space but the audience engagement is even more consistent. It's down to the chutzpah and professionalism of the cast that this comes off the right side of panto.
What remains is the punchy modernity of the text - and the fact that its often the incongruity of words that pulls laughter, rather than jokes in context of the opera. Laughing at, rather than with: I'm not convinced its a good thing. One has to be rather careful with profanity, as one must be careful with contemporary political reference and modern drug abuse. It's funny how the one thing that a modern Boheme (specifically) can get away with is the use of multiple digital devices, given the basic penury of the characters of the original. Text & social media messaging is sufficiently ingrained into the vernacular that it resists note.
The new impetus in opera in the past decade which no doubt galvanised the Up Close movement is the need to re-invigorate the dramatic purpose of the genre (let alone the repertoire). Both shows do this. Naturally, something of Puccini's intention is sacrificed. The melodic calibre of the score is such that this shines through though. However, one thing that no manipulation of the artform can game-change (to appropriate a term) is the need for good singing, especially in a small space when the work at hand is designed for a medium to large lyric theatre; a mixed cast in this respect is the one consistent thread through performances of Boheme at close quarters over the last 7 years.