Monty Python used to say, and now for something completely different, and ne’er was a truer word said than with ENO director P.J. Harris’ contemporary English language adaptation of Puccini’s classic opera, and it is also transformed from its 19th C Parisian location to a modern-day encampment in a disused London car park, where we meet our four struggling hipsters: poet Rodolfo (David Butt Philip); painter Marcello (Roderick Williams); philosopher cum photographer Colline (William Thomas); and musician Schaunard (Benson Wilson), who arrives having had some good fortune. They are interrupted by Benoît (Trevor Eliot Bowes), a security guard, but cleverly trick him to avoid paying him his dues.
Whilst the others leave, Rodolfo remains but is interrupted by a young lady needing a light for her candle and who then feels faint and purposefully drops her key. As they search for it he discovers her name is Mimi (Natalya Romaniw), and declaring their love for each other they go to catch up with his friends.
As they jostle in the hustle and bustle of an artisan street market, complete with a toymaker Parpignol (David Newman), a former girlfriend of Marcello, Musetta (Soraya Mafi) appears – all Essex-girl – with her flashy and wealthy beau, Alcindoro (John Savournin), complete with personalised number plate, but her mind is clearly on her former lover as she flirts to get Marcello’s attention.
Events resume some months on with a clearly unwell Mimi searching for Marcello and she tells him of Rodolfo’s jealous rage although we soon discover this is a sham as he is too poor to care for her and knows she is sick. They are reunited in their love until at least the spring whilst Marcello and Musetta continue to bicker. Some weeks later we’re back at the car park where Marcello and Rodolfo are lost in nostalgia when suddenly Musetta appears with Mimi in tow: reconciliations seem in order but will it all end too soon?
I’m a great supporter of adaptations as a means of attracting a new audience and whilst the modern setting replicated the sense of solitude of life in the city, the romance and subtlety of Paris was most definitely lost. There had been some trimming of unnecessary parts to reduce the overall length of the piece, I assume again in an attempt to garner a new audience, so its replacement by extended hip hop dance sequences which added nothing to the piece seemed somewhat odd if not at odds with the piece overall. Whilst the set design by Chloe Lamford and costume design from Camilla Clarke ticked their respective boxes, I’m unconvinced they were boxes that necessarily needed ticking.
A reduced sized orchestra sat precariously on a scaffold above the stage but played beautifully under conductor Martin Brabbins. The celebrated cast sang equally beautifully but the camaraderie between our four artisans was lacking and there was a distinct lack of chemistry between the pairings of Butt Philip/Romaniw and Williams/Mafi. A case of solitude taken too far? Certainly, the intimacy of a Paris moonlight was missing.
The Drive-In aspect is an interesting take and certainly allowed the performance to comply with the current social distancing obligations but if the overall purpose was to target a new audience then the cost of over £100 to attend in your own car reducing to almost £40 if you arrived by bicycle seem guaranteed to keep younger attendees away.
Note: as a result of the pandemic, ENO’s ensemble is split into two ‘bubbles’ of stars, chorus, musicians, and crew to ensure the show goes on. This review refers to the performance on 23rd September 2020.
Reviewer: Mark Davoren
Reviewed: 23rd September 2020
North West End UK Rating: ★★★