I must confess a sheltered ignorance of the world of opera until now, although it has existed for a long time on the periphery of my theater, I have somewhat deliberately kept it at a distance. With that obvious cultural blind spot in need of rectification, Puccini’s new queer reimagining by King’s Head Bohemian felt as good a candidate as anyone else. Truth be told, lifelong opera skeptics with a preference for musical theater will find a lot more to enjoy than they might expect, not least because fans of the musical LeaseJonathan Larson’s 1996 Pulitzer and Tony Award-winning rock opera based on Puccini’s work, can expect to encounter lingering familiarities like the characters, plot points and even musical motifs to which Jonathan Larson has affectionately nodded.
Admittedly, it is opera-lite and is particularly far removed from the grandeur of London’s opera houses, not least in its relatively very affordable ticket price. This production, intimately staged in the back room of an Islington pub, is understandably threadbare, with significantly reduced orchestration. It’s a testament to Puccini’s composition that the melodies still soar with unwavering vigor. Likewise, the four-act opera has been condensed to just over 80 minutes which unfolds without a break and enjoys a quick and convincing exposition, although the longer and more moody third and fourth acts consequently seem somewhat little undeserved.
The King’s Head Theater has a certain history with Bohemian, as is actor and co-librettist Philip Lee, who previously played Rodolfo in OperaUpClose’s Olivier Award-winning edit of the show, seen at the same location. This time, however, Rodolfo became Robin, and Lee swapped that role entirely to play a gender-swapped Mimi (really Lucas using a presumably retained online pseudonym to aid in the lyrical scansion). Lee’s Mimi is carefully layered, full of subtleties and complexities that never fully expose themselves to the public. Vocally, his performance is also well characterized, with a false fragility that gives way to a passionate force at each emotional climax. Like his lover, Robin, Daniel Koek revisits his classical roots becoming widely known in the UK for his musical theater roles in Les Miserables, South Pacific and West Side Story. The power, smoothness and stratospheric height of Koek’s soaring voice are breathtaking, a perfect companion to his emotive and honest acting performance.
Puccini’s cast of characters has been whittled down to a quartet which is rounded out by Matt Kellett as Marcus and Grace Nyandoro as Marissa (modernized names that sound both like the Italian originals and their Lease counterparts). Kellett is a wonderful comedic presence with bulging eyes and a deeply resonant baritone. As his mistress Marissa, Nyandoro presents her lyrical soprano chops effortlessly and relishes the opportunity to indulge in the playful new libretto. “Musetta’s Waltz” is a glorious climax.
The play is hauntingly staged in a hospital, a love story retrospectively re-enacted in this setting, a framing device that does more to undermine the lush, romantic tone than to create atmosphere. While there’s some reward in the show’s conclusion, it means the cast must deal with set and costumes that are unnecessarily clinical and constantly at odds with the intended tone of each new scene. For it to be a queer reimagining, it seems like a pretty lofty concept without it.
Likewise, the play’s final moments lacked conviction: an emotionally frenzied sequence is fatigued both by disconcerting sections of the score and by an obvious decision to have Lucas de Lee face almost exclusively behind the scenes. There’s a lot in Mark Ravenhill’s thoughtful direction, however, with thrilling audience engagement and a particularly clever use of lighting – the individual portable floor lamps prove both practical and effective and when the shaky reveal from the cold, the overhead lighting is brilliantly jarring.
The new, modernized libretto by Lee and musical director David Eaton is equally charming – something about being in a pub theater and hearing passionately sung references to Uber and Lidl just seems right. That being said, a glaring inaccuracy arises when, after meeting on the gay dating app Grindr, Lucas admits “almost swiping left” – clearly a feature of alternative apps such as Tinder – when he is totally acceptable to have both i think Bohemian should decide.
Even the shyest of opera maidens have no reason to resist this boisterous reinvention of rhapsodic romance, the luscious melodies and splendid singing remain, but the current, queer context is new and rather charming, and the marriage of two is happy.