King’s Head Theatre
Reviewed – 5th May 2022
“Matt Kellett’s baritone is rich and undulating, and soprano Grace Nyandoro is warm and bright”
La Bohème is basically the opera equivalent of Romeo and Juliet: a tragic love story, very accessible and (therefore) very overdone. If you’ve seen one opera, chances are very high that it’s this one. So I completely understand the impetus to upheave the production and give the audience something entirely unexpected. Director Mark Ravenhill has tried just that, setting up, not in nineteenth century Paris, but in a doctor’s staff room at a modern-day hospital.
I find this slightly confusing, because whilst we preface the opera with a scene in which Mimi is in a hospital surrounded by healthcare professionals in scrubs, the opening act of the actual opera has everyone playing their usual roles, one an artist, the other a writer, in their shared flat. Except, they’re still in the hospital staff room, still in scrubs. So presumably this is Mimi’s hallucination? It’s not entirely clear. And not to go on, but if you’re going to change the setting can’t you find an equally romantic replacement? Nineteenth century bohemian Paris is hard to beat, I’ll concede, but a hospital staff room, depressingly decorated with a bit of Christmas tinsel, is especially bleak.
As has come to be expected with King’s Head opera, the script has been entirely re-written with only occasional nods to the original. “Your tiny hand is frozen, let me warm it in mine”, for example, is now “Relax, your hands are freezing, we could just chill out for now”. There’s something slightly less placable about the contemporary script: where you might forgive a silly back-and-forth sung in Italian, or even a more formal English, it doesn’t sound quite so good sung in the modern vernacular: “Hey mate/Where’ve you been?/I got held up.” Or rather it simply plays for laughs, which gets a bit boring after a while.
So that’s all the naysaying, I think. The performances themselves are sublime. We’re warned at the start of the evening that someone is singing through a cold, but I don’t quite catch who, and whilst I might have my suspicions (a few ‘M’s turn vaguely to ‘B’s) I really couldn’t say for sure because all four singers are absolutely stunning. The two tenors, Philip Lee and Daniel Koek, both particularly shine in their dulcet falsettos; Matt Kellett’s baritone is rich and undulating, and soprano Grace Nyandoro is warm and bright. There’s a slight lack of sexual chemistry between Lee and Koek, but their caring for one another is believable enough, so that’ll do. Kellett and Nyandoro get the biggest laughs, unafraid to be physical and silly- at one point, Nyandoro has Kellett by his lanyard, walking him on all fours like a dog.
Co-writers Eaton and Lee have also tweaked the story to be a same-sex relationship (Mimi’s real name is now Lucas rather than Lucia) which works without a hitch- I can’t think of anything lost by doing this and it’s something rarely- perhaps never- seen in old operas. But I do wish that, rather than a hyper realistic Grindr match, it had been truer to the bohemian romance of the original with a genuine meet-cute.
With opera traditionally un-miked, it’s often actually quite hard to hear what anyone is saying, so performing in a little room like the King’s Head is absolutely ideal to really hear the singers. The modernising of the story is slightly convoluted, and loses a lot of the aesthetic romance usually inbuilt. But it doesn’t take away from the beautiful performances, nor the heart-breaking end.
Reviewed by Miriam Sallon
Photography by thebrittainphotography
King’s Head Theatre until 28th May
Previously reviewed at this venue: