Score by Giacomo Puccini
New English libretto by David Eaton and Philip Lee
Original concept by Adam Spreadbury-Maher and David Eaton
Musical Direction by David Eaton
Directed by Mark Ravenhill
Kings Head Theatre – until 28th May 2022
If you imagined that Jonathan Larson’s RENT was the last word in giving a radical overhaul to this operatic masterpiece then think again. In fact, former Kings Head artistic director Adam Spreadbury-Maher already made bold updates to Puccini’s bittersweet portrait of tragic lives in the Parisian artistic quarter with his 2009 version for the now defunct Cock Tavern in Kilburn, garnering awards and a West End transfer as it reimagined the struggling bohemians in a hip but grungy contemporary London.
This edition though, libretto by Philip Lee and musical director David Eaton based on an original concept by Spreadbury-Maher and Eaton, and first seen pre-pandemic in a shorter form as part of a double bill entitled Opera Undone, goes even further in adapting the beloved staple of opera houses around the globe. Here, the seamstress heroine, she of the tiny frozen hand, is Lucas (nicknamed Mimi), a HIV+ gay man with a drug problem and a job flogging fragrance in Libertys, who meets lovelorn poet Rodolfo (now Robin, struggling to write his masterpiece on a battered-looking iPad) on Grindr, and fiery secondary couple Musetta and Marcello have become Marissa and Marcus who shop at Lidl and address each other in the saltiest of language when having a row.
All other characters are cut, and director Mark Ravenhill has distanced this version even further from the original by having the whole thing played at as a sort of last gasp fever dream in Lucas’s head just as he dies in a medical emergency room with all the other performers clad in hospital scrubs throughout as they embody figures from Mimi’s gritty, intermittently unhappy past. Anybody in search of old school sentimentality and lush orchestral swell will be sorely disappointed (Eaton plays the score, quite beautifully, on an upright keyboard at the side of the stage). The concept-cum-framing device of the hospital setting takes a while to get used to, and slightly muddies the water in terms of the storytelling.
Some of the blocking is awkward: the Kings Head stage is tiny but this production makes it feel smaller still by using just a square space in the centre of it, which works brilliantly when the four performers are simulating being in a crowded Nags Head pub on Christmas Eve, but seems perversely limiting the rest of the time. Also, Ravenhill has Philip Lee as Mimi facing upstage for the entire final section as he’s dying in front of Daniel Koek’s ardent Robin, which makes any emotional connection virtually impossible from an audience point-of-view.
The concept has a couple of other built-in issues: the melodramatic excess of some of the more extreme moments are harder to pull off in a contemporary setting, and the music dictates acting choices that can sometimes come across as stilted or slow-moving. This isn’t the fault of the performers or the director, but can prove a little frustrating to watch at times.
Despite these caveats, there’s still much to savour here. For starters, there’s the humour -particularly with regards to the histrionics and jealousy of Marcus and Musetta- which has way more bite and sparkle than in a conventional version; Matt Kellett and Grace Nyandoro bring real dynamism and sexual chemistry to these roles, while also achieving glorious vocal performances. The singing throughout, as one would hope in an opera, thrills the blood, and it’s impossible to overstate how wonderful it is to hear voices of this calibre at such close quarters. Daniel Koek’s golden, ringing tenor contrasts pleasingly with Philip Lee’s lovely, but more vulnerable, maturer sound, and when they sing together it’s utterly magnificent.
If I was left less emotionally wrung out than I would have hoped, there are undeniable merits in bringing this story bang up-to-date. Not one for purists perhaps, or anybody who thinks that innovation in opera should stop with the ENO, but a treat for anybody who wants to hear Puccini’s swooningly gorgeous music stripped right back but still sung with authentic heat and passion.