By Francesca Wickers
At the end of Opera Loki’s La Bohème, I descend the winding staircase from the tiny attic theatre in a daze. The opera’s tragic close has left me feeling wrung out like a sponge. But I also can’t quite digest that such a frugal production had so great an impact.
Simple, authentic and quietly heartbreaking, this English version of Puccini’s opera is the perfect example of a fringe show holding an enormous candle to its big-stage counterparts. In the same way that Rodolfo and his flatmates derive so much joy and creativity from the scant surrounds of their Parisian garret, so too does director Laura Attridge haul an infinitely touching production from few resources.
The convivial setting of this romantic Italian opera lends itself perfectly to the fringe. Tucked into the theatre above the Gatehouse pub in Highgate, North London, we feel as though we’re in a real Bohemian apartment, collectively bracing ourselves against the relentless winter of 19th century Paris. Rodolfo (played by a twinkling Edward Hughes) sits warming his hands over the drafts of his new novel, set alight in frustration; his friend Marcello (a vibrant Nick Morton) toils over his unfinished paintings, while their two high-spirited flatmates (Nick Dwyer and Louis Hurst) philosophise, joke, and drink themselves into oblivion. We, the audience, join the merriment with bargain Pinot Grigios from the pub below.
The big draw of La Bohème is the number of well-known, show-stopping arias which stud the story. It’s like going to a gig and discovering the band’s set list contains all of your favourite songs. You never have to wait too long for another ‘big one’ (unlike many other works, whose famous arias are outnumbered by the unrecognisable) and Opera Loki, founded 14 years ago to help singers at the beginning of their careers, has also selected the ‘big ones’ from London’s extensive collection of young opera singers.
Soprano Luci Briginshaw is a radiant Mimi – a soft glow ever present in her eyes, despite her pallid complexion and increasingly sickly posture. She’s a deeply likeable character: her earnest self-expression and dignity still standing in her final hours, and Briginshaw’s voice reflects this admirably. Hughes is a perfect match as her Rodolfo; the pair seem genuinely interested in one another. Hughes’ Che gelida manina aria (“What a cold little hand”) warms the entire room. Jenny Stafford’s Musetta and Nick Morton’s Marcello, meanwhile, are a tempestuous opposing force to the martyr-like devotion between the opera’s leading lovers.
Musical director and pianist Harry Sever deserves rapturous applause for performing the entire work from memory on the electric keyboard. Without the distraction of sheet music, the musical dialogue between Sever and the singers feels like second nature.
Attridge’s production doesn’t necessarily shed new light on this classic opera, but the director’s sensitive understanding of the opera’s emotional framework makes this a gem of a Bohème. With Opera Loki as a launchpad, these performers deserve big stage careers. But let’s hope they pop back occasionally.
By Charlotte Valori
Opera Loki’s vision for Rigoletto is strongly Victorian, with white painted faces, stage makeup and traditional, yet simple costumes. Directed by Rae Leaver, the production’s vision is that of “a ragged group of performers, fortune tellers and travellers [who] come together to perform a very special piece before they disband” – a concept you could blink and miss, if you hadn’t read the programme. Our performers do indeed look vividly Victorian, thanks to skilled costumiers Carolyn Bear and Pam Line, but a small scrap of silent stage business during the prelude doesn’t make much impact on what is, in general, a very straight and traditional reading of Rigoletto, to a piano accompaniment played energetically by Nick Fletcher. We are without much in the way of props or scenery, beyond a few wooden crates for general use, a shiny gold chain for the Duke, a knife for Sparafucile and of course the obligatory hessian sack required for the final denouement.
I am a big fan of minimalism. I am a big fan of budget opera, fringe opera, opera which surprises and shocks and intrigues new audiences, shabby or chic. But it pays to be careful about what you minimalise. When you have an opera whose (brilliant) plot hinges materially on a complex physical trick performed in the dark of night, involving, non-negotiably, a building and a ladder (Rigoletto’s unwitting assistance in the abduction of his own daughter), and you play out that plot point on an empty stage without any scenery in bright light, I am afraid you lose the audience. And this, really, was where an otherwise enjoyable and often brilliantly sung Rigoletto ran gruntingly aground.
The curse had been chillingly set out by Count Monterone (a highly enjoyable and assured operatic debut from Edward Price, singing with gravitas worthy of the Commendatore’s Ghost in Don Giovanni). Luci Briginshaw, after a slightly shrill start, revolutionised Gilda from “Gualtier Maldè! …Caro nome” onwards, giving a performance of heartbreaking softness, innocence and sincerity fuelled by singing which grew ever more fabulous as the night drew on. Daniel Joy made his Duke of Mantua a convincingly red-blooded sensualist, not always articulating his lines wonderfully clearly, but leaving us in no doubt whatsoever of his intentions through the thrilling physicality of his performance. Verdi spoils his Duke rotten with gorgeous tenor arias, and Joy gives us every hit number with deft exuberance, powerfully characterised. Alistair Sutherland was exceptionally well cast as Marullo, impressing us with a nonchalant nastiness which was every inch the bored and bitter courtier. Simon Grange made a noble and moving Count Ceprano.
Oliver Gibbs sings Rigoletto with lyric strength and sincerity, and puts his considerable acting talents to good use, always expressive in face and gesture. Navigating Rigoletto’s sharp switches from glee to fury, and acid biteback to murderous resolve, Gibbs is heartbreaking in his final tragic discovery of his daughter’s corpse. Unfortunately, with the crucial scene such a fuddle, it remained hard to perceive Rigoletto’s true and complex centre, or give him much latitude for his actions, unless you knew the opera really well. And, although many of us do know Rigoletto very well indeed, and millions of people across the planet can hum “La donna è mobile”, the fact remains that fringe opera is there to reach out not just to the cognoscenti, but also to the uninitiated. The test of a good production must therefore be a simple one: do we know what is going on? If we don’t, we have a problem. While Opera Loki’s stylish vision and skilful delivery would always make for an enjoyable evening whatever they chose to sing, the opaque muddle at this production’s heart might leave beginners feeling they ‘just didn’t quite get it’ – which, amidst such energy, skill and talent, would be a real pity. Even a sheet of MDF and some stacked-up boxes could have done the trick of just clarifying the action there, allowing Gibbs the chance to endow his Rigoletto with more fully realised moral jeopardy.
Verdi designed Rigoletto to include a late and unexpected treat in the wonderful character of Maddalena, Sparafucile’s sister, who only appears in Act III. Gemma Morsley did not disappoint, bringing both sensual fire and intriguing vulnerability to Maddalena, as well as a well-judged sense of comedy when she pleads with her murderous brother that the Duke is, quite simply, too handsome to die. Henry Grant Kerswell was a classic Sparafucile, surly and stubborn, also gloriously comic in his determination to kill someone because he has been paid to do so, though less honourably focused on whether his victim has to be the person specified by the client: one of Verdi’s darkest, funniest moments. This constant interplay between violence and humour - the grimace, and the grin, of the clown – is what can make Rigoletto so entertaining, and so profoundly disturbing. With Opera Loki, we were thoroughly entertained, interested and moved: but the black shiver of Rigoletto’s curse didn’t quite reach our spines.
La Boheme 2014
“What a truly wonderful experience your LA BOHEME was... it was a joy to hear and watch your magnificent group perform this most moving opera. Although I have loved Pavarotti, Placido Domingo, Joan Sutherlan etc., how very refreshing to see young people playing the parts and with such intensity and maturity. They just have to be the age of the Bohemians intended by Henry Murger and Giacomo Puccini, who would have certainly both applauded in the wings if they could have been there!”
“It would not be fair to single out one person as the whole cast and the splendid pianist made for a most beautiful rendering of this, one of my very favourite operas. I shed many a tear throughout the last Act, which has to be a compliment to your amazing and oh so talented group of young people.”
“Thank you from the bottom of my heart for kindly inviting me to share this magical moment appreciated beyond what you would probably ever suspect.”
“Warmest congratulations to everyone involved in the production for a truly wonderful and successful soiree.”
“I feel sure the Bohème has continued its tour of the Bourbonnais to hugely deserved acclaim. Bringing Opera Loki to La Gozinière and other venues in the region is a wonderful achievement and it must be very satisfying to see your hard work and commitment crowned with such success.”
“Once again it was a wonderful evening. Luci is extraordinary; Mimi, I realised, is a difficult part to play let alone sing. For much of the time she has to languish in misery, cold and the shadow of death but she did it! She did it convincingly and naturally, without repetition. In fact they all acted brilliantly I thought - hats off to the director.”
“Nous voulions vous dire combien nous avions apprécié cette représentation. Ce fut une grande réussite... Le décor qui ne pouvait aller mieux pour "la Bohème", le charme et les voix de ces jeunes talents qui dégagent un tel enthousiasme et une telle allégresse.”
“The performance was stunning.”
“It is such a privilege to see and hear those wonderful young voices perform with such passion and talent. They have such energy, not only for the actual performance, but to trail around to different venues for each one, using the space available so imaginatively.”
“it gradually dawned on me that I was part of an audience that was a single unit of concentrated emotional involvement; we were it seemed even breathing in unison in a bubble of our own still silence. I am sure the singers must have felt it. For a while we were all bound together in isolation. I hope I remember the evening, always.”
“I don’t know where it (her voice) comes from. Above, I think.”
“I thought that the Rigoletto was about as good as i have seen - the enthusiasm, excellent voices, ensemble work, ability to draw one into the drama and keep the credibility up were all admirable. One does not need expensive sets and international singers to create a Verdi operatic drama.”
“Just back from Rigoletto at the Wimbledon venue. What a wonderful show it was and I do hope we were an appreciative audience. Full of admiration.”
La Traviata 2013
“Immensely enjoyable. The staging of La Traviata was a triumph from start to finish.”
“Excellent staging and very fine singing.”
“A magical evening. It really was wonderful”
“Having seen or heard four times La Traviata, I can say truly that yours was by far the best for the emotion, the very excellent voices and acting. So much that I wept all the way back home!”
“I think the roars of approval at the end of the evening said it all. It was a cracking performance”
“What an evening. The only place I expect to be made to cry is Covent Garden, but apparently not! They were wonderful.”
“It feels like a privilege to be there.”