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A (Free) Night At The Opera
Scottish Opera's revival of their 2004 Puccini production sparks debate among The Journal panel
Wednesday, 17 March, 2010 | 09:00
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Credit: Eamonn McGoldrick

Recently, The Journal issued a call to arms, inviting our readers to join us for a night at the opera. The aim was to explore the appeal of opera to a student audience, using Scottish Opera's latest production, a re-imagining of Puccini's La Bohème at the Theatre Royal in Glasgow as our context. Written in 1896 and originally set in fin de sièçle Paris, Scottish Opera transpose Puccini's most famous work to contemporary New York as it charts the doomed love affair between journalist Rodolfo (Avi Klemberg) and seamstress Mimi (Celine Byrne). Directed by Tony Award-winner Stewart Laing, this production bears few aesthetic similarities to Puccini's original but the original score, coupled with the addition of modern influences—TV, games consoles and references to Sex And The City—combine to create a piece that sparked lively debate among our panel.

“It’s hard to say,” says Publications student Marie O’Neill, when asked if she had any preconceptions about the performance. “Because that wasn’t a normal opera... I was expecting it to be dated, a little bit old-fashioned… I was surprised that it was just singing all the way through. I thought it would be speech and music, which is what I’m used to.” This opinion is seconded by The Journal's Arts Editor Marcus Kernohan, who remarks that he felt “kind of biased against opera... it’s what my mum listens to".

The modernization of the setting proved controversial for the group, with University of Edinburgh student and self-confessed 'La Bohème purist' Caroline Bottger commenting, “I've seen Puccini’s opera three times, sung from it, and had friends perform excerpts from it... This was my worst nightmare come true: they modernized my beloved Puccini to the 21st century New York art scene, where the idea of starving artists is frankly ridiculous.” Marie agrees, adding: “The environment wasn’t the problem, it was the subtitles and the contemporary speak really threw me off sometimes. There were times when you thought: “Would they actually say that?”

While there was a general agreement that the use of supertitles—an Enlglish translation of the Italian script above the stage—was probably for the best, some of the group found them off-putting at first, as they force the viewer to divide their attention between reading the translation and watching the action on stage. Marcus comments that “there were times during the second act, where it seemed like the screen had frozen and we weren’t really sure what was being said”.

Turning to the topic of characterisation, Caroline felt “The characters were a little static: Musetta was portrayed as simply a slag, Mimi the innocent virgin, while the men were jokey and carefree despite their dire situation.” This sense, that the extreme contrast between the two female characters erred on the side of cliché, seemed to be consistent around the table.

The key question of the night however is: would our panelists recommend the opera, particularly to their peers? Marie demurs on this point: “That one, probably not. I’d recommend going to see a traditional opera, because I don’t think that was the best introduction to it.” Caroline and her partner Matthew Grogan agree, suggesting that the whole production displayed “a hastily-produced feel which detracted greatly from the beauty of the opera”. But as an afterthought, Marie adds, “I’m not so different from the typical student. I love musical theatre, and it’s not really that different.”

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