“Do you know the story?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Well, it’s boy meets girl but he’s poor and she’s ill … and then she dies.”
Such was the conversation behind me as St Mary in the Castle audience began to fill the room in anticipation of Barefoot Opera’s interpretation of La Boheme. Yes, it’s a simple story., so to get it right requires everything to fall in place. You need to believe in the beauty that exists on the border between love and death.
Barefoot’s performers had the advantage of being mostly the right age to suit struggling bohemians loving poetry and art but failing to pay their bills. Sarah Foubert and Laurence Panter made a heartbreakingly convincing Mimi and Rudolfo. The acoustics of St Mary in the Castle were made for their initial declarations of love and, later, their final, beautiful, reconciliation. Elaine McDaid was equally impressive as Musetta but it did feel that the production wasn’t quite sure what to do with her role, a similar problem faced by Matthew Thistleton’s Colline. He sang wonderfully as well though and it’s not that much of a surprise to find that one of the first hits you find for him on google is on a page called ‘barihunks’.
Without room (and, hopefully, inclination) for a full orchestra this was a Boheme accompanied by a four-piece band which included Andrew Sparling who doubled up his clarinet performance with the role of Shaunard. Credit to him and them, I doubt anyone in the room was lamenting the absence of orchestra. The playing was, to this untrained ear, spot on and supportive of the action on stage.
The production was simple without feeling empty, and it all looked properly bohemian too. I was impressed by the ability to use the back screen to host the surtitles essential to the action. The focus throughout was on the drama of this simple story. Another production of La Boheme is making the arts pages at the minute as Covent Garden seeks to replace its five-decade-old warhorse of a show with a shiny expensive retelling. I’ll eat Mimi’s little pink hat if that production comes even half as close to the emotional clarity of this one.
So, all in all, I enjoyed it. Barefoot Opera’s goal is to expand audiences and educate performers. If they are able to take work as good as this into new places then they will surely succeed. They are back in Hastings in November for a spot of the old bloodlust (and lust) of Coronation of Poppea. I am just about to book my ticket.