Queen of the arena

Francesca Zambello thinks big in her updated Bohÿme at the Albert Hall
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The Independent Culture

In a secret, hi-tech world in London Docklands sits a simulated stage of the Royal Albert Hall. On it is a densely peopled café, with family groups and lovers and domino-players, among whom weave waiters on roller skates carrying trays of drinks; around the periphery wander prostitutes and soldiers and toy-salesmen, while cardsharps, jugglers, tumblers and gospellers vie for the attention of passers-by.

"Boy urchins to the left, girl urchins to the right, and street girls in the café - I want to see you cruising," a voice booms from a platform above. Addressing her subjects through her god mic, and looking if not quite like a god, then very much like a Roman empress, this is Francesca Zambello - famed for her crowd scenes - in action.

Round the edge of the studio the creative team pore over drawings, ponder the score, adjust the text, send gofers to get things. They all look harassed, bar one chubby, smiling figure who's reading a London Evening Standard. Well may he smile, because the paper is singing his praises. In launching a private opera company at the Savoy, Raymond Gubbay is about to issue his biggest challenge yet to the titans of Bow Street and St Martin's Lane. Meanwhile, he's purring over what's going on here. "Francesca came knowing exactly what she wanted, and it's all come together extraordinarily fast," he says, adding mischievously: "It's refreshing to see a chorus that's not tired and jaded, that actually wants to work."

Getting Zambello to direct his Bohème is a milestone for Gubbay, because directors don't come classier than this New York Italian, who's in demand with the world's top opera companies and regularly works with Placido Domingo. Her bold versions of the Russian classics at Covent Garden and English National Opera are benchmarks of quality, and she has carried that boldness into the popular realm. Her production of Disney's Aladdin in a California theme park - complete with magic carpets - has pulled in two million gawpers since it opened last summer. Her West Side Story on the lake at Bregenz in Austria seemed spookily prescient - although it was designed before September 11, its central image of a falling skyscraper might have been a response to that terrible day's events. As soon as the Royal Albert Hall's Bohème is running, Zambello will be off to Moscow to direct the Bolshoi in the Russian capital's first production of Prokofiev's The Fiery Angel.

While the crowd is put through its paces by a repetiteur, Zambello explains how this unlikely collaboration came about. "I was aware of Raymond Gubbay's work, and I always liked what he said in the papers. His determination to produce classical music as a commercial venture, and wanting to popularise it - both of those things are possible. Reaching a wider audience shouldn't only happen through film and television, it should be done in live situations."

She has always loved Bohème. "It has a great sense of innocence and discovery, and I've always been enchanted with the atmosphere of the Royal Albert Hall. It may be a huge space, but it also has an intimacy between performers and audience."

Part of that, she says, is because the audience is part of everyone's backdrop, but the history of the building itself is also a factor. "Some theatres have a past, a karma, that can induce people to experience a work in a different way. The Albert Hall means the pride of Britain, the Proms, and there's the fact that it does so many things besides classical music. A wide variety of people are always going in through its doors. Half the battle is just getting people to enter a building, and that battle's won for you at the Albert Hall." She has brought in her own designers, chosen two casts of equal strength, hired the band of the Welsh Guards, and got a new translation that would be right for the Albert Hall audience. "I wanted to make a Bohème you wouldn't find anywhere else. That was the goal I set."

She has produced it twice before - a period version in San Francisco, and a modern one for young Italian singers - but here she has set it in 1946. "I wanted to generate that post-war sense of relief, discovery, rebirth, all of which are very much part of the work itself." Her set is a majestic railway station: she and her designer Peter J Davison did a tour of major Paris stations and created an amalgam of their favourite bits. "Those stations have mystery and romance, they're full of people who've come in from the provinces to seek their fortune." The Café Momus now being recreated before our eyes has exactly that feel.

"We took the idea of people camping out in a disused carriage on a siding - and that became our idea of the garret. Those stations are microcosms of everything - and Bohème itself is a microcosm, bursting with a sense of everybody taking chances, doing what they want with their lives. And also, for the unlucky ones, dying of TB."

Davison winces when I ask how he's coping with the show's demands. "It's a very big space, and the budget's a bit limited - we're not talking Covent Garden budgets here. And because everyone is looking down on the set from above, your main palette is the floor - that's the only thing you can make any kind of scenic statement on. Nothing must stand up and interpose itself."

Sue Wilmington, the costume designer, explains the look she's gone for. "I'm making it look more like a film, with real people in real clothes, the things they wore just before Christian Dior and the New Look. Paris was still on rationing, but they could get good cloth, often from England, which is why Forties Paris fashion had so much tweed and check. I thought of my working girls not as selling potatoes, but as employees of milliners and couturiers."

But aren't those roller skates an anachronism? "Absolutely not," insists the choreographer Arthur Pita, whose idea they were. "Astaire and Rogers used them in Shall We Dance? in 1938 - they're not an exclusively modern thing. And anyway, the space is so huge, it seemed nice to have people flowing and floating through it. It made sense for the waiters to be on wheels - otherwise, how could they do their jobs?"

The conductor David Parry, who wrote the new libretto, doesn't claim to have done anything drastic to the opera's time-honoured sentiments. "My translation rhymes less than anyone else's. I found that rhymes didn't help in creating something clear and singable, while being poetic when it needed to be." His translation of the opera's most famous line becomes: "How cold your little hand is!" I notice that the alternate owners of that cold little hand are temporarily otherwise engaged: the soprano Mary Plazas is getting a neck massage from a skater, and Indira Mahajan - called in to be the second Mimi at a week's notice - is still desperately learning her part.

As I watch the detailing in Zambello's crowd - each family of extras in their own cameo drama, each prostitute pursuing a convincingly solitary course among her punters - I remember something else Zambello told me. When she was five, her passion had been marshalling the papier mâché puppets in her personal toy-theatre, but by the time she was eight she was roping in friends to act in her backyard plays. All the world's a stage, but on that stage there are real people.

'La Bohème' opens on 26 February at the Royal Albert Hall, London SW1 (020-7838 3100; www.royalalberthall.com)

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