Flat Pack Music’s English language version of La Bohème was performed on 29 September at the Theatre at the Casa in Liverpool. Puccini’s most popular opera was brought to life by the phenomenal cast under the direction of Emily Howard. Accompanied by live piano played by Tomek Pieczora throughout and conducted by Tom Newall, this was a vibrant performance of love, loss and extreme poverty in 1840s Paris.
The opera opens on Christmas Eve with Rodolfo (Joseph Buckmaster) and Marcello (Philip Clieve) shivering in their small apartment. Both Marcello, busy at his easel, and Rodolfo, tapping at his typewriter, are struggling artists with not a penny to their names. What some would call the reason for their poverty, their art, ends up becoming the thing that saves them as Rodolfo’s unsold playscript feeds the fire.
This creates a touching scene of friendship which is strengthened by their united circumstances. They are soon joined by Colline (Peter Lidbetter), and Schaunard (David Cane) who has brought food and wine. Their landlord Benoit (Samuel Jackson) then arrives to collect the rent. Panicking, the friends ply him with wine and listen to him confess his love affairs. When he adds that he is married, the others throw him out of the house in mock indignation without handing a penny over.
They decide to go out but Rodolfo stays behind to work on an article he is writing. The other three leave and shortly afterwards Mimi (Heather Heighway) arrives as she needs a light for her candle and has no matches. Rodolfo is infatuated by her and they declare their love for one another before joining the others at Café Momus.
Within the café, more money which the friends don’t have in spent in copious amounts. The beautiful Musetta (Jessica Hope) enters the café with her wealthy suitor Alcindoro (Samuel Jackson). Marcello pines for Musetta’s love but Rodolfo’s eyes do not leave Mimi. Noticing Marcello, Musetta feigns a foot injury and sends Alcindoro off to fix her shoe. By the time he returns she has fled with the others and he is left holding the shoe like a crestfallen Prince Charming after Cinderella has run away.
All seems to have worked out, but there’s a long winter ahead and poverty isn’t going anywhere. Mimi is becoming increasingly frail and Rodolfo worries that life with him is not the best thing for her. Musetta continues to flirt with wealthy men and Marcello starts to lose his patience with it. It quickly becomes clear that their happy Christmas Eve will just be a memory.
As is often the case with opera, the story itself is melodramatic and wouldn’t work as well in another form. Eternal love in declared in passionate speeches five minutes after meeting someone. A minute’s flirtation creates a rift between lovers which they feel unable to come back from. Emotions are heightened, life is sped up and tragedy and comedy are intensified. All of this creates a mind blowing experience which overwhelms and inspires.
The offstage and audience areas were used cleverly to create both comedy and intensely emotional scenes. This allowed the audience imagination to fill in gaps where they couldn’t see things, and feel intimately involved when the action was happening close to them. The rise and fall of the tempo and volume of the singing illustrates the emotions the characters are feeling.
Between acts the cast assisted with set changes themselves, a nice touch considering their company name, Flat Pack Music.
The comedy in the show is based around a combination of irony, cheekiness and seemingly profound speeches ending in wittily anticlimactic japes. This results in several laugh out loud moments which creates a multi layered and entertaining story.
The combination of voices in the cast blended beautifully to create an outstanding show which was mesmerizing throughout. Buckmaster’s strong vocal was particularly awe inspiring, and supported by his incredible talent for acting. His facial expressions, particularly those of wonderment and sorrow, and body language throughout the performance were brilliant.
Hope displays a confidence and cockiness creates a roundness to the character which makes her identifiable. Her gentle pushing against the fourth wall as she tells the audience she will be rid of Alcindoro is done with such a light touch it does not break the flow of the performance.
Flat Pack Music aim to bring opera to the wider public in an original way which illustrates it’s beauty and value. In La Bohème they have created a hypnotic performance which accomplishes just that. This is a show both for people who love opera and people who think they don’t.
La Bohème will be performed again on 6 October as part of the Wirral Arts Festival. You can buy tickets here. You can find out more about Flat Pack Music and their forthcoming performances on their website or by following them on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.