La Bohème, Cock Tavern Theatre, Kilburn, London
Jansons / Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, Barbican, London

A tiny and youthful production of 'La Bohème' has authenticity, and Mahler makes the singers cry

You'd have to drink the Cock Tavern dry to mistake Kilburn High Road for the Quartier Latin, and downstairs from the pub's tiny 40-seat theatre, where Opera Up Close unveiled its production of La Bohème last week, that was exactly what some of the locals were doing.

Sandwiched between the organic bakeries and gastropubs of Queen's Park and the portered mansion blocks of Maida Vale (both of which are name-checked in Robin Norton-Hale's updated English libretto), Kilburn is an area of pound shops and betting shops, casual labour and cheap sublets. A nice verismo touch, this – it also has the highest rate of tuberculosis infection in Greater London.

With a cast in their early twenties, a battered sofa, laptop and laundry airer for props, an out-of-tune piano for an orchestra and several dozen bemused drinkers as the supernumeraries for Act II, when the production moves to the bar, Norton-Hale's Bohème is certainly plucky. All involved are working for a putative share in the profits, bringing a glow of youthful optimism to Puccini's bitter little tragedy. Though the singers have coltish voices, still cautious in the transition from soft to loud, low to high, the characterisation is immediate and authentic, the confusion and selfishness of first love powerfully conveyed in the contemporary setting.

No need to change the job titles for modern Kilburn. Rodolfo (Christopher Diffey) is still a writer, insecure and petulant, Marcello (Richard Latham) an unsuccessful artist but a pragmatist in love. Too big a personality for a bedsit, Schaunard (Brett Brown) is an aspiring musician, gentle Colline (Alistair Sutherland) a baby-faced philosophy graduate, his moustache still soft and thin. Their landlord, Benoît (Ian Wilson-Pope), isn't long in London himself, perhaps from Bosnia or Serbia, while Mimi (Charmian Bedford) is another migrant, working as a cleaner and sewing floral brooches by night. As to poor, flustered Alcindoro (Tom Murphy), his employment is immaterial. He's just there to pick up the bill when Clare Presland's tough, tart, true-to-you-in-my-fashion Musetta waltzes out of the bar with her on-off painter boyfriend to whoops of appreciation from the locals.

So far, so cute, with plenty of extramusical charm. But as the singers adjust their voices to the muggy acoustics of the upstairs room, grow into their roles and the story turns sour, you notice a deeper layer to Norton-Hale's work: the careless arrogance behind that skit with Benoît, the way in which Rodolfo treats Mimi as an idiot-savant, tickled by her naive delight in her fabric flowers. To the four young men, all from middle-class families, living hand to mouth is a picaresque fantasy.

To Musetta and Mimi, poverty is real, exhausting, deadly. Strike One comes in the Act III quartet, when Marcello calls Musetta a "chav" and she calls him a "posh git". Strike Two is when consumption claims its victim, still believable today, when there is every chance that an economic migrant might be too scared or weak to fight her way through the queues at the local clinic, too afraid of losing employment to take time off.

This is not opera at its grandest or most beautifully sung. But it is honest, perceptive, unpretentious and intelligent and a breath of fresh, beer-and-crisp-scented air for a work that thrives on reinvention, 103 years after its premiere.

Cut off from its Beethovenian roots, Mariss Jansons's interpretation of Brahms's Fourth Symphony with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra was dreamlike, disorienting, episodic. With each cross-rhythm lifted out of context and held up to the light, each transition bathed in a sheen of sumptuous sound, the lieder-like lilt of the Allegro ma non troppo slowed to a balmy andante, the Andante Moderato to something approaching adagio. Neither Jansons nor the Concertgebouw has a reputation for Brahms, and on this showing, coupled with a gratuitously fast rendition of the Overture to The Bartered Bride and Martinu's scowling Double Concerto for two string orchestras, piano and timpani, I rather wish they hadn't tried to address that deficit. Yet having lost the plot of one of the most clearly wrought symphonic narratives, they navigated Mahler's Resurrection Symphony with radiant, revelatory ease.

This was, like Douglas Boyd and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe's Symphonie Fantastique, Franz Brüggen and the Orchestra of the 18th Century's Schubert Unfinished and Antonio Pappano and Nina Stemme's Liebestod, a performance that I cannot imagine I will hear bettered: profoundly felt and poised, clear-sighted, apprehensive rather than neurotic in the opening movement, vigorous yet unhurried, with the off-stage brass opening up a vista of infinite redemption, sorrow, beauty and ecstatic stillness. I was not the only person weeping during Bernarda Fink's rapt "Urlicht". Half of the London Symphony Chorus was in tears, though in wonderful voice for "Auferstehen".

That Jansons and the Concertgebouw can produce something so monumental yet almost weightless, so vividly detailed yet organic a narrative, is almost incredible. That this marked the launch of a series of Barbican residencies is the best possible news for the Mahler anniversaries in 2010 and 2011.

'La Bohème' (0844 477 1000), to 23 Jan

Arts and Entertainment
James Hewitt has firmly denied being Harry’s father

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Oliver
filmTV chef Jamie Oliver turned down role in The Hobbit
News
The official police photograph of Dustin Diamond taken after he was arrested in Wisconsin
TVDownfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

art
Arts and Entertainment
Laugh a minute: Steph Parker with Nigel Farage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Comic Ivor Dembina has staged his ‘Traditional Jewish Xmas Eve Show’ for the past 20 years; the JNF UK charity is linked to the Jewish National Fund, set up to fund Jewish people buying land in Palestinian territories
comedy

Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

music
Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

radio
Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
    Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

    Scarred by the bell

    The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
    Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

    Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

    Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
    The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

    The Locked Room Mysteries

    As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
    Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

    How I made myself Keane

    Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
    Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

    Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

    Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
    A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

    Wear in review

    A look back at fashion in 2014
    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

    Might just one of them happen?
    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?