Having arrived earlier than I anticipated for this evening’s production of Puccini’s La Bohème by OperaUpClose, I took the opportunity to read through the libretto, helpfully provided in the form of a thin volume available for purchase. When I organise concerts, I often provide texts so that unclear diction is better understood, but this evening I didn’t look at the libretto once. The clarity of text in the intimate space that is the Northwall Arts Centre, Oxford, was without fault; the small cast made the compelling story easy to follow and deeply moving.

OperaUpClose's La Bohème
OperaUpClose's La Bohème

The booklet informs me that this production won the Olivier Award for Best New Opera and the What’s On Stage Award for Best Off-West-End Production in 2011. The spark hasn’t gone out in the intervening year: it’s still fantastic. Despite picking dates out of university term for their performances, when Oxford is much quieter, the auditorium was packed.

The cast consisted of a range of voices. The older characters, Alcindoro and Benoit, were sung by Gerard Delrez, whose mature timbre provided an effective contrast with the younger sounds of the bohemians. The three flatmates, Rodolfo (Philip Lee), Marcello (John Savournin) and Colline (Dickon Gough) were convincing as a group, without letting their individuality slip. Lee’s voice kept finding new heights, and though Pavarotti didn’t leave much of the first act for others to make special, by opting out of Pavarotti’s signature stratospheric end to the first duet with Mimi, he shrugged Pavarotti off his shoulder. Savournin and Gough kept a spinning quality over the two hours of singing, keeping it fresh and a joy to listen to. The baritone tones of Savournin filled the air with a bright ringing sound that I could have listened to all day. The female parts, Mimì (Elinor Jane Moran) and Musetta (Prudence Sanders), were both utterly enthralling. Sander’s light soprano voice matched the part perfectly and Moran’s variety of timbre charted Mimì’s descent to death with heart-wrenching effect.

Updating a story as well known as La Bohème is always a dangerous game to play, but Robin Norton-Hale’s gamble pays off. Having a gay Colline is classily understated; the mention of Mimi’s illegal immigrant status and a reference to the credit crunch could have seemed laboured, but in fact their delivery is so natural that it is convincing. The pantomime trick of dropping local neighbourhoods into the libretto provoked chuckles every time and the moments of dirty humour at the beginning give a sense of how it must have felt to see it at its first productions. It retains La Bohéme’s ability to shock with its stark contrasts. The childish romp ends abruptly, with a knock at the door, a stark minor chord and a creeping melody in octaves from the piano. Again, such forceful light and darkness could have been laboured, but were carried off with such force of skill that the repeated jolts grew stronger without growing old.

We unexpectedly found ourselves in the bar for the second act, which was set in an Oxford pub. In that tight, bouncy acoustic the small cast created a glorious cacophony evoking the thrill of lust apparent in the relationships of Rodolfo and Mimì and of Alcindoro and Musetta. Their use of the space added to the entertainment of the experience and when we returned to the auditorium I was shocked by the contrast. Time had elapsed and the carefree youngsters of the first half had been replaced with people facing jealousy, loss and anger. It touches on repressed emotion, relationship breakdown and illegal immigration, before confronting Mimì’s descent to death, at which point the music abandons the characters, whose desolation is reflected by their resorting to shouting. This is masterful direction on the part of Norton-Hale.

This production has found itself the centre of much press attention, with full-length articles in The Guardian and The Sunday Times, a shorter article in The Evening Standard and features from Reuters and the BBC World Service, alongside their various awards. It seems the word is out that this is amongst the best productions out there. There’s no reason not to go and see this. It is magnificent on every level: its seven-person cast does not feel small, and nor does the piano accompaniment.