Philip Lee as Mimi (L) and Roger Paterson as Rod (R) in Opera Undone's La bohème
Review: Tosca and La bohème by Opera Undone12:56, 21st February 2020
Opera Undone: Tosca and La bohème
Puccini is the composer to be unravelled in Opera Undone’s latest project: Tosca and Bohème shortened to one hour each and sung in English. A few rows of seating surround a small performance space at the intimate Trafalgar Studios, letting the audience become part of the unravelling too.
Tosca was set in 1940s New York, the production opening with Cavaradossi working on his latest painting in his apartment. Director Adam Spreadbury-Maher was quick to earn the audience’s affection: Cavaradossi engaged a lady in the front row as his real-life portrait, placing a picture frame over her head and tying a scarf around her neck. Hats off to our model who took on her role admirably, playing up to Tosca’s jealousy upon seeing the painting’s ‘pretty’ subject.
Charming touches aside, though, the production revealed the limitations of a one-hour feat of compression. The context of the story was lacking slightly; I found myself asking questions, for example, about the significance of Angelotti (an unperformed part) and his role in the action. I craved more time to wallow in the drama of the tragic ending: it had all the elements to be so powerful, but felt rushed.
Honey Rouhani as Tosca projected a regal presence throughout her performance and displayed a mature-sounding voice, beautifully oaky even in her upper register. She was impassioned when Cavaradossi was tortured off-stage, and her ascending ‘I grabbed a knife’ reached an impressive vocal climax. Roberto Barbaro as Cavaradossi showed his fine tenor to full effect, though sometimes his voice was overpowering for the small space.
Michael Georgiou, a chilling Scarpia, also pushed his voice to the acoustic limits of the venue: at his loudest, a rather unpleasant ‘crackling’ layer appeared over his natural sound, as if the voice wanted to burst free but couldn’t quite escape the confines of the small dark room. Nevertheless, his portrayal of Scarpia was awash with cold, villainous and manipulative aloofness.
La bohème, set in present-day Peckham in London, was more successful overall – Spreadbury-Maher knew how to win the laughs and hearts of his London audience. We see the frustrated painter Marcus, a tattoo artist serving the local hipsters, chatting to his aspiring writer flatmate Rodolfo (Rod) before going to the ‘vegan place’ for dinner. Rod promises to meet Marcus there, but is delayed waiting for his Grindr date to arrive. ‘My uber got lost,’ explains Rod’s date when he walks in. We soon discover that this is Mimi – or Lucas: ‘My profile says Mimi, but my real name is Lucas’. We also discover that Mimi has a drug addiction.
The production explored the troubles and complexities of Rod and Mimi’s relationship. While afflicted by the specific issue of addiction, their woes reflected common tensions. Rod wants to help Mimi, but ‘he just thinks I nag him’; Mimi needs his freedom. We also witness Marcus’s upset as his on-off girlfriend Melissa pursues a polyamorous relationship. ‘Slut!’ he shouts to her in rage; ‘Tory!’ she rebukes in (a brilliantly comical) reply.
Roger Paterson gave a strong and convincing performance as Rod though he was overshadowed by Philip Lee as an excellent Mimi. With a mellow tenor voice, Lee exhibited impressive dynamic control in his goodbye lament to Rod. When he was dragged in from the street, on his way to death by overdose, he made effective use of vibrato to demonstrate his vulnerable mental and physical state. I was completely drawn in – his death was genuinely emotional.
Hugo Herman-Wilson, playing Marcus, sang with lyrical and smooth lines. Fiona Finsbury as Melissa, dressed in a red top and black leather jacket and skirt, made sure there was no mistaking her character as a playful sexual being. She excelled at interacting with the audience and was most vocally impressive in her low to mid registers, singing with a warm and attractive timbre.
In transposing La bohème to a relatable modern setting, Opera Undone celebrated the universal power of this opera, showing how Puccini’s opera of ‘small things’ (in the composer’s own words) is large in meaning. A truly engaging production.
Opera Undone: Tosca and La bohème runs at Trafalgar Studios, London, until 7 March 2020: trafalgar-studios.com/shows/opera-undone