Arena operatics for the people

Edward Seckerson takes a dim view of Raymond Gubbay's populist version of La Boheme
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The Independent Culture
So the people's champion brought the people's opera back to the people. For the price of a West End musical. It even sounded like one, hefty amplification carrying Puccini's intimate masterpiece to the uppermost reaches of the Royal Albert Hall. The only "real" sounds heard during the course of the evening came from the BBC Concert Orchestra in the National Anthem. And what a contrast that was to the canned synthetics of the rest. But then, isn't this what "the people" (whoever "the people" are) are now conditioned to expect. Raymond Gubbay has set up his opera superstore - a kind of Opera 'R' Us. It's cheaper and less intimidating than the specialist flagships (though only marginally in the case of the one on St Martin's Lane). But is it really a good deal - for the punters and for opera? Is this really what one's first experience of opera should be? Well...

Mr Gubbay is an enthusiastic, and well-intentioned promoter. I'm sure he would never knowingly short-change the public on quality. No doubt many thousands of would-be opera enthusiasts will be leaving the Albert Hall over the next week, richer for having enjoyed "the Puccini experience" in the flesh. But there's your first problem. To make a project like this pay, we're talking big. We're talking arena opera. And suddenly, far from being opera to the people, we're placing them at a once-remove from it. And particularly from a musical point of view, a sound point of view.

The great joy of music, of opera, of operatic voices, lies in the natural sound - the many colours, facets, timbres. For that reason live music will always take precedence over the CDs we buy - however sophisticated our reproductive hardware. Operatic voices do not take kindly to amplification. And then to have Puccini's sumptuous orchestrations "reprocessed" through some monstrous mixing console, so that even two dozen violins suddenly sound like a synthesiser sample - well, folks, believe me, you're better off with the CD.

Then, of course, there's the choice of piece and its physical suitability to the "arena" treatment. Gubbay's last project - the Wembley Turandot - was a natural for it: big chorus participation, big set pieces. But La Boheme? An intimate six-hander about the loves and lives of 19th-century Paris bohemians? Hardly. Gubbay's producer Michael Hunt follows the natural geometry of the Albert Hall with an "in the round" Boheme. Theatrical interest begins and ends there. Alison Nalder's rudimentary set design contrives a central acting area in the midst of Paris's Latin Quarter. There isn't much sign of life on her paved streets: the odd passer-by, a vagrant by a brazier. Probably just as well. Entrances and exits are, by necessity, long and distracting. In Act 2's Cafe Momus scene - the one real opportunity fully to deploy this kind of space - the arrival of Musetta, sugar-daddy and small children in tow with her shopping, pulls our focus away from the main action long before her raucous laughter (so impeccably timed by Puccini) throws everything into disarray. Michael Hunt marshals plenty of bodies in this wonderful scene. And, of course, he turns on the snow machines in Act 3...

But the real La Boheme has little or nothing to do with operatic spectacle. What has touched us all for 100 years now is the intimate human drama at its heart. And from that - in this production (cardboard characters engaged in cliched business) - I felt remote. Heaven only knows how they felt in the upper balcony with these disembodied voices issuing from speaker clusters below. The young Chilean tenor Jose Azocar (Rudolfo) was plainly having intermittent hearing problems - what other possible explanation could there be for such lamentable lapses in pitch? The Bolshoi's Katerina Kudriavchenko, his Mimi, was to my ears a little heavy for the role, the sensitivity of her phrasing not always matched in the sound. Vivian Tierney's show-stealing Musetta produced the best, the most characterful, the most tantalising singing of the evening, a believable sparring partner for William Dazeley's winning, handsome Marcello. The conductor, James Lockhart, appeared to have abandoned all hope of maintaining a tight ensemble. His was a routine, lacklustre reading of the score.

So if this is "opera for the people", then the people should know what they're missing. Let no one be hoodwinked by all this talk of elitism. Exciting work is happening in our national opera houses, and, if you've a mind to, you'll find an affordable ticket. Yes, even at the Royal Opera House.

n To 10 Feb. The Royal Albert Hall, London SW7. Booking: 0171-589 8212