Bohemians: they all do it
Miller also designed the permanent set of vague-purposed, strikingly beautiful ivory stucco buildings, with only tables, some Louis-something chairs and a narcissism-revealing mirror furnishing the stage. The costumes are contemporary; originally by Armani, the six principals were then dressed for the revival by Marks & Spenser. I've heard a rumour that this is the Zara Così; I can't dispute that when it comes to the lovers, but the production credits reveal that Don Alfonso's suits are by the more upmarket Gieves and Hawkes. The only off-note is the boys' "Albanian" costumes, hippy-dippy 60s parody outfits, updated with a touch of punk and a gesture to Damien Hirst's diamond skull. They don't work; though the UN blue beret plus camouflage combat uniforms are perfect.
Besides that it is so fine that you'd be crazy not to want to see the production again, this time 'round there was an English woman conductor, Julia Jones, a stalwart of the Vienna Opera, making her Royal Opera debut. After a small ensemble fumble in the first two bars, she took charge of the orchestra, and all was well up to the high standard of the house.
Sally Matthews's Fiordiligi is another reason to catch this revival - she scintillated, dramatically and vocally. In come scoglio, she managed to deliver one of her coloratura passages while pulling a face à la Munch's The Scream; and her octave leaps were clean and crisp. Helene Schneiderman, formerly Dorabella in this production, was an unusually mature Despina, and made the most of it, without mugging or exaggerating her Doctor or Notary impersonations. The singing was first-rate, bar a little intonation trouble in soave sia il vento. Of the two boys, of course the tenor Ferrando has the bigger, better and showier role, and Charles Castronovo inhabited it fully. I think I'm unlikely ever again to see a tenor so fit he can sing almost while doing press-ups - at least, instantly after, with no recovery time.
The coincidence had to do with none of these, but with Guglielmo. A young American, Troy Cook, was making his Covent Garden debut - he was very good indeed, lithe and supple of limb and voice, with a beautiful strong, burnished baritone, with a lovely upper register, and the projection needed for a big house. Like most of the cast, his acting was superb. Somehow or other I learned that he was from my native state of Kentucky. I don't think the Bluegrass State has produced many international opera stars, so before the curtain went up, I googled Mr. Cook, and learned that his birthplace must be very near my own - Lexington, for he said he was born in Eminence, KY, a town of 2,000 that got its name from being the highest point where the LNRR passes between Lexington and Louisville. I ambushed Sir Jonathan in the interval and asked whether he knew where Troy Cook came from, hoping he would take the hint and invite us backstage to meet him. But he insisted Mr Cook was from Pennsylvania (where he does, indeed, live), and ignored the imploring look in my eyes.
That didn't happen at the next opera coincidence. Because the designer, Kate Guinness, is the daughter of close friends, we went to see the pub production at the Cock Tavern Theatre in Kilburn of La bohème. There are about 50 seats in the upstairs of the pub, most of them in raked staging. As we were the last to arrive, we were seated on stools in the stage area, at right angles to the sofa that was the chief stage furniture. Thus we could, and several times almost did, touch the singers.
As I sat there sipping my pint of Kronenburg 1664, the cast came in and took their places. A dark, good-looking young man daubed at a painting. "Look," I said to my wife, "Marcello is being sung by Ben Seifert." We hadn't known that yet another off-spring of close friends was involved in this amazing production, and, in fact, because it runs every night until well into May, there are three Marcellos - so it was pure chance that we got young Benjamin.
He was superlative. He looks the part: his dark eyes blaze when needful, smoulder in the presence of Musetta, and smile wryly when he's amused. He pulls off the fighting as well as the painting, and looks sexy. His baritone voice is impeccably musical, accurate, warm, round and fleshy, with no gear change sound between chest and head voice; and he projected his voice precisely for the size of the room. Of course I can't say he was the best of the cast, as I'm naturally prejudiced. Fair enough, because our Mimi, Belinda Evans, was superb, with a glorious, silvery upper register, perfect intonation, and acting so good that she convinced me she was ill. As Mimi exhaled her last I looked around me at the tiny house, filled with people weeping. Our Rodolfo was Antony Flaum, who has a winsome, dimpled face that makes him a natural romantic hero, and has all the notes of the tenor role. His voice is lovely in the lower register, but his head voice spinto is usually channeled through his nose - a not at all beautiful sound. However, he is capable of floating a very high note from the top of his head, so this nasality is just a bad habit, which he can unlearn. Lynn Marie Boudreau's Musetta was splendid, and her frocks gave us a chance to assess Kate Guinness's good work. Of course the venue is too small for anything but a piano to fit. The conductor, Andrew Charity, played it with such bravura that it sometimes sounded like an entire pit band.
The extremely good new translation is by the director, Robin Norton-Hale. It sets the piece right there in Kilburn High Road, has Rodolfo working on copy for a website, and makes good sense of almost every detail. When I bought Ben and Belinda a drink afterwards, they told me it was easy to sing - and it obviously was not to hard to learn, as Ben worked it up in a fortnight. One of the brilliant aspects of the evening is that the Café Momus scene is staged downstairs in the pub, with us, the audience sitting at tables drinking, along with the pub's regulars. It's still a surprise when the chorus turns out to be the table of people sitting next to you, and the waitress breaks into song.
This is real seat-of-the-pants opera. You can see and hear every detail. The singers are completely exposed - a false gesture as easily spotted as a false note. But La bohème, at least, is ideal for this setting. I think I speak for the entire audience (and they are not your Covent Garden crowd) in saying we were all thrilled and moved. The run has sold out and been extended several times and now is on until May [see www.cocktaverntheatre.com]. For their next production I suggest Carmen. The pub is the perfect setting for Lillas Pastia's inn.
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