La Boheme, Old Vic Tunnels, South London


I’ve reviewed opera in some unlikely places – a telephone box, the stairways of a derelict town hall, the kitchen department of Wembley IKEA – but the labyrinth of tunnels under Waterloo made the unlikeliest venue yet.

For Silent Opera’s La boheme, director Daisy Evans and her team wanted the sound of a full orchestra, and drew inspiration from the iPod. Hence we got a pre-recorded track of chorus and orchestra, to which we would listen on wireless headphones while live singers performed around us. This would ‘re-energise Puccini’s warhorse, and bring it headlong into our hi-tech world.’

Marcello would be a tattoo artist, Rodolfo a comic-book writer, Colline an animal-rights campaigner, Schaunard a pick-pocket, and Mimi a young fashion graduate, ‘riddled with self-doubt and struggling with eating disorders’. Given that TB is on the rise among the homeless, one wondered if that sensitive bit of contemporary colour was needed, Amy Winehouse notwithstanding. 

And sure enough, Amy got name-checked in the first few minutes, as the Bohemians larked about in their beanbag-strewn garret; this was a Sixties environment, but the trains rumbling overhead suggested a wartime air-raid shelter. The men sang with lusty vigour and ad-libbed when necessary (‘You’re sitting on my bean-bag’ – addressed to an audience member who had got in the way – being melodiously woven in). Mimi (no programme, so no names) made a graceful appearance and sang with silvery charm, but Rodolfo, though good in the low register, suffered pitifully with his high notes, and so therefore did we. Musetta and her lover, on the other hand, made an effectively forceful duo. Musically the experience was perfectly decent, with live and pre-recorded sound melding nicely. But as the army of extras herded us from tunnel to tunnel, enacting noisy little sub-dramas of their own, the production kept dissipating its own focus. This didn’t seem to bother the audience, which was predominantly young, smart, educated, and in party-mode; Mimi’s death didn’t move them, maybe in part because self-doubt, plus a touch of anorexia, doesn’t have the doom-laden resonance of jolly old TB.

So was La boheme ‘energized’? Hardly. And to be honest, we didn’t need those trendy headphones: the orchestra could just as effectively have been piped in through old-fashioned speakers. But that wouldn’t have been nearly so cool.