Looking back on it now, that exhilarating coup at the Cock Tavern Theatre when act two of La bohème first spilled out to the downstairs pub was a defining moment. At a stroke, new kids OperaUpClose had a calling card, and they went on to win a well-deserved Olivier Award for the effrontery of what WhatsOnStage described as ‘opera with the gloves off'.
Once the company had moved to the King's Head Theatre, subsequent productions proved variable – a case of too much too soon, perhaps – but with La traviata OUC is back to its very best and it fully deserves this transfer to the larger Soho Theatre. Opera up not-quite-as-close, maybe, but who's counting.
Artistic Director Robin Norton-Hale, who directed that Bohème, has chosen to set Verdi's tearjerker in the 1920s midwest (even though the cut-glass English accents might suggest otherwise) and to channel Georgio Germont's ruthless instinct for self-preservation into the cynicism of American politics. To be honest, it's a light-touch update whose finer points scarcely register, and I doubt whether many in the audience will give it a thought.
The courtesan Violetta, more ill with consumption than she cares to admit, is wooed by the smitten Alfredo with whom she shacks up until the latter's father warns her to back off or else. She concludes, unwisely, that the only way to do this is to turn the younger man against her. Cue violins – or, in this case, a trio of clarinet, cello and piano.
Harry Blake's sensitive reduction of Verdi's orchestral score reveals surprising levels of incidental detail and proves a good fit for the production under the well-judged guidance of pianist/MD Alex Beetschen who, together with his instrumental colleagues, resides in view beyond designer Katie Bellman's elegant french windows.
The impressively high production values for La traviata are a particular surprise: with a solid hardwood set and stylish costumes courtesy of Jonathan Lipman the whole thing looks terrific. If some excessive scene-change faffing could be ironed out it would be the cat's pyjamas.
"Prudence Sanders is a soprano to watch"
Norton-Hale's cunning English libretto conflates, doubles and reassigns minor roles to allow the story to unfold convincingly with just five soloists. It's a ploy that works surprisingly well and allows her to showcase some excellent voices. With each character triple-cast, the possible permutations are many and few audiences will see the same complement of singers, but the quintet I caught were all first-rate – and that includes the hard-working Flora McIntosh and Christopher Jacklin who divvied out the supporting characters between them.
Of the three principals, Prudence Sanders is a soprano to watch. She sang Violetta with a pinpoint accuracy that can elude practitioners of this coloratura role, and her warm vocal quality was a delight – even if in the early scenes her chipper courtesan was several coughs short of consumption.
Her Alfredo on the night was Philip Lee, a secure, communicative tenor who made up for lack of burnish with a masterclass of interior acting – so essential in up-close theatre – that rendered his passion-driven mood swings entirely credible. And if the estimable James Harrison was manifestly too young to play his father, so what? In opera, artifice is king.