We entered the red swathed theatre with unsure steps. Glass of emergency wine clutched in one hand, a copy of the programme in the other, we made our way along the dress circle to our seats, settling nicely in time for the lights to slowly dim and the curtain to raise. The orchestra struck up the first haunting motifs that would continue through the evening, and the stage lit up to reveal a rather square, boxy, multi-leveled apartment.
Before we know it the first Act – where Mimi, a hardworking seamstress, introduces herself to the rambunctious group of artists living above her flat and begins to fall in love with the charismatic Rodolpho – is over and my friend and I turn to each other in surprise. I find myself wiping away tears, clearly lost in the spell woven by the orchestra and soaring, emotive arias telling the story of one of Puccini’s most popular works, and my friend is similarly lost for words (which is incredibly rare!). As the tale continues, we’re both a little puzzled at times with the incredibly modern setting and not knowing the story-line a little lost in sections despite the use of English throughout, but we persevere.
The ornate Coliseum (credit)
But, by the end of the dramatic love and loss story-lines, sweeping vocal aerobatics and the beautiful counterpoint of a live orchestra, I knew we had made the right choice. As a teenage orchestra geek (I played the Double Bass but lacked any kind of rhythm, and sung in choirs but suffered from acute stage-fright) I’ve always been aware of the power of music, but hadn’t any idea how much the orchestral scoring and haunting duets playing out before us could really touch your soul. Once we were settled into the style, we simply lost ourselves in the magic of live theatre.
La Boheme has lit a fire in my heart to see a full-scale production in the original language. We visited the ENO (English National Opera) performing the tragic love story of La Boheme as a modern ‘opera-lite’ type experiment to dip our toes in the water. We simply figured that a story told well, sung in English so we knew what was happening and not costing the earth (just in case we hated it) would be the best way to sample opera society.
We loved the twist of a modern setting and costuming of the characters (neon-clad baritone construction workers belting out a chorus, whilst huddled around an open fire were rather incredible) and felt this was part of the joy of attending the ENO and learning different styles, changing the preconceptions about what an opera should be.
Having been on my bucket list for an age, we were a little worried to hang out in a crowd of mothballed-velvet clad, opera-monocle wearing Opera-goers who understand every time idiom (unlike us noobs) and pay £100 for a ticket for something that went straight over our heads. To be honest, we weren’t sure before we went what would be suitable to wear but our nice office style dresses were on point with the majority of opera goers, though a few couples dressed in beautiful suits and glamorous gowns which we people-watched with envy.
Puccini himself commented: “I lived that Bohème, when there wasn’t yet any thought stirring in my brain of seeking the theme of an opera.”
Puccini himself (credit)
The haunting melody of the melancholic oboes still hummed through our heads as we sang our way to the tube afterwards (blame it on the interval champagne, I did) and made further plans to explore our new found interest. Where to next…