At the end of Opera Loki’s La Bohème, I descend the winding staircase from the tiny attic theatre in a daze. The opera’s tragic close has left me feeling wrung out like a sponge. But I also can’t quite digest that such a frugal production had so great an impact.
Simple, authentic and quietly heartbreaking, this English version of Puccini’s opera is the perfect example of a fringe show holding an enormous candle to its big-stage counterparts. In the same way that Rodolfo and his flatmates derive so much joy and creativity from the scant surrounds of their Parisian garret, so too does director Laura Attridge haul an infinitely touching production from few resources.
The convivial setting of this romantic Italian opera lends itself perfectly to the fringe. Tucked into the theatre above the Gatehouse pub in Highgate, North London, we feel as though we’re in a real Bohemian apartment, collectively bracing ourselves against the relentless winter of 19th century Paris. Rodolfo (played by a twinkling Edward Hughes) sits warming his hands over the drafts of his new novel, set alight in frustration; his friend Marcello (a vibrant Nick Morton) toils over his unfinished paintings, while their two high-spirited flatmates (Nick Dwyer and Louis Hurst) philosophise, joke, and drink themselves into oblivion. We, the audience, join the merriment with bargain Pinot Grigios from the pub below.
The big draw of La Bohème is the number of well-known, show-stopping arias which stud the story. It’s like going to a gig and discovering the band’s set list contains all of your favourite songs. You never have to wait too long for another ‘big one’ (unlike many other works, whose famous arias are outnumbered by the unrecognisable) and Opera Loki, founded 14 years ago to help singers at the beginning of their careers, has also selected the ‘big ones’ from London’s extensive collection of young opera singers.
Soprano Luci Briginshaw is a radiant Mimi – a soft glow ever present in her eyes, despite her pallid complexion and increasingly sickly posture. She’s a deeply likeable character: her earnest self-expression and dignity still standing in her final hours, and Briginshaw’s voice reflects this admirably. Hughes is a perfect match as her Rodolfo; the pair seem genuinely interested in one another. Hughes’ Che gelida manina aria (“What a cold little hand”) warms the entire room. Jenny Stafford’s Musetta and Nick Morton’s Marcello, meanwhile, are a tempestuous opposing force to the martyr-like devotion between the opera’s leading lovers.
Musical director and pianist Harry Sever deserves rapturous applause for performing the entire work from memory on the electric keyboard. Without the distraction of sheet music, the musical dialogue between Sever and the singers feels like second nature.
Attridge’s production doesn’t necessarily shed new light on this classic opera, but the director’s sensitive understanding of the opera’s emotional framework makes this a gem of a Bohème. With Opera Loki as a launchpad, these performers deserve big stage careers. But let’s hope they pop back occasionally.
By Francesca Wickers
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