Sarah Cockburn (Our Favourite Places), July 2014
Enterprising company Opera on Location have brought Puccini’s tale of Bohemian tragedy to the atmospheric surroundings of Museums Sheffield Graves Gallery at night, and it’s a winning combination.
The story centres on Rodolfo, a young poet who has been disinherited by his wealthy family and lives in penury with only literary inspiration to keep him warm – he even resorts to burning his poems in the brazier. He’s part of a set of similarly impoverished young dandies pursuing a variety of artistic dreams and downing a good deal of gin in the attempt. When Mimi, local girl fallen on hard times, comes round to Rofolfo’s hovel to get a light for her candle (operatic equivalent to a cup of sugar?!) they fall in love and so starts a tempestuous and ultimately tragic affair. Given the youth of the cast, the modern dress – chinos for the boys and skinny jeans for the girls – and the constant relationship angst, the whole effect is of that an operatic version of Made in Chelsea in which the bank of mum and dad have cut up the credit cards.
La bohème is a tragedy but the spritely English libretto, featuring a few concessions to the Sheffield setting – The Star: check, Arctic Monkeys: check – is full of wit and joie de vivre as it explores the slightly sleazy world of these misfits. The rent collector Benoit is a lecherous wide boy who is soon outwitted by the unscrupulous toffs. Meanwhile preppy drug-dealer Parpignol wheels round a whole travel case of illicit substances for when the grubby reality of their existence gets too much. The young cast are full of brio and possessed of truly glorious voices which soar unamplified in the intimate surroundings of the Graves Gallery. Gareth Lloyd as Rodolfo has an incredibly rich tone to his singing while Andrea Tweedale as the consumptive Mimi manages to maintain both a beauty and delicacy to her arias as her strength fails. Painter Marcello (Aidan Edwards) and good-time-girl Musetta (Chloe Saywell) provide an excellent foil to the central couple in their fiery flirtation. Arguably Saywell steals the show as her pitch perfect voice veers into the realms of penetrating hysteria during a fabulous femme-fatale set piece.
But the real magic of the evening is revealed in the company name – location, location, location. Simply being in the elegant Graves Gallery after hours feels like a special treat, and hearing it animated by exquisite music is an absolute privilege. The promenade production starts in Gallery VI, the priceless 18th century paintings on the wall contrasting with the squalor of Rodolfo’s dig, brings to mind the squatter’s paradise of a crumbling manor house. Gallery V provides the setting for the character’s all night bender with Stanley Spencer’s Helter Skelter providing a suitably hallucinogenic image. In a following scene Mimi hides behind a sculpture case to eavesdrop on her lover, mirroring Edna Manley’s life-size Eve on the other side of the room. They both look upon the scene with the horror of revelation. These synergies of scene and setting make the performance unique.
More Opera on Location please, and more transformative uses of Sheffield’s loveliest gallery.