Saturday, May 12, 2012

La Boheme - Abanxaxhi by the Isango Ensemble, Hackney Empire, 11th May 2012

Three people told me to bring tissues when I told them I was going to see La bohème.  My expectations were high for a fun night of emotional trauma and misery.  Maybe this, finally, will be the opera that busts through me, opens my eyes and makes me realise why people love it so much.  Ever since watching Fitzcarraldo I've been impossibly intrigued by the dramatic pull opera has on people, if it can make someone drag a boat over a mountain in the middle of the jungle then there must be something I'm missing.

In the last year I've been to see Two Boys and The Passenger at the London Coliseum and while I've appreciated the costuming, staging and general technical proficiency there has been nothing that made me sit up in my seat, mouth hanging agape and entirely focussed on the stage and nothing else.  

So, to La bohème at the Hackney Empire and the Isango Emsemble.  The setting is tranposed to modern day Cape Town rather than 19th Century Paris, and the orchestra uses entirely African instrumentation.  The staging is fairly minimal, a series of stripped down doorways and crates for the characters to sit on, the occasional bed and not much else.  The costuming is modern and realistic.

As I take my seat the company has already taken to the stage and is chatting amongst themselves, a neat little tactic which I supposed was to soften the barrier between the performers and the audience. Then the opera starts.  I can understand maybe a quarter of the lyrics.  I always need a 5 minute period of adjustment to acclimatise myself.  It's the same when seeing Shakespearian performances, you need to try and immerse yourselves in the rhythms of the dialogue and if you can't understand every word then you've got to infer what's going on from the inter-relating body language between the performers.  At the other operas I've seen there was also a 'subtitles' electronic banner showing the lyrics above the stage, which might be a bit too much a crutch, but at least I know what's going on.

Maybe I'm missing the point, are you even supposed to be emotionally invested in the story of an opera?  I figured most people were familiar with the story already, so probably didn't need to be explicitly what was going on.  But surely it can't be the case that opera-lovers are engaged in a cold technical appraisal of the singers and staging when they attend, and why was I told to bring a tissue to mop up tears people assumed I'd have?  People around me bark out short laughs at various points, I'm confused, what on earth was funny just then?  I start to feel like a robot trying vainly to understand your com-plex-hu-man-emo-tions. Beep Boop. What am I missing here?!

As the interval rolled around I was following the basic outline of what was going on, and I'd managed to decipher that the lead female was called Mimi.  Maybe I should have forked out £5 for a programme.

When the end rolled around, and (spoiler alert) Mimi died I realised that this was the moment I was supposed to be bawling my eyes out.  I wasn't - I don't know if this is a fault of the performance, or just that I don't have the necessary critical framework to appreciate what's in front of me.  It's very vexing.  The only moment of emotional engagement I had over the entire production was when the lead male dropped out of singing to say that his love was dead.  Surely it can't be the case the emotional highpoint of a damn opera is when the lead is not singing?

It's not that I didn't enjoy myself - the singing was impressive, the orchestration was brilliant (I'm a total sucker for steel drums in any context) and the Hackney Empire is always nice to visit.  Without any kind of emotional engagement on my part though, it's hard to really concentrate.  I need to know why the characters on stage are singing so passionately.  The fact that they're being technically proficient is not enough.

Hopefully one day I'll finally see the opera that makes all the pieces drop into place and I'll sit there dewy eyed and trembling at the majesty I've been missing out on.  Until then, the tissues in my pocket go unmoistened.

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