La bohème - Royal Albert Hall, 27 February 2014
A Zambello-directed, Gubbay-produced, amplifed version of the world's most over-exposed opera? Only the kind offer of a free ticket swayed me to try my first 'opera in the round' at the Royal Albert Hall.
It turned out miles better than I ever expected.
For a start, the central quartet - Jessica Rose Cambio as Mimi, Sean Pannikar as Rodolfo, Michael Chioldi as Marcello and Anna Leese as Musetta - were all excellent singers who wouldn't disgrace any opera stage in London. The odd intermittent problem with Sean Pannikar's mic aside, the amplification was barely noticeable.
Francesca Zambello's post-Liberation staging really comes into its own in the Cafe Momus scene. Her Broadway skills came into play as roller skating waiters, sailors, tarts and acrobats filled the catwalk platform with minutely directed detail. During the more intimate scenes, the vastness and emptiness of the arena were more apparent, and Zambello's direction less focused, but the music did its tear-jerking work all the same.
The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, tucked behind perspex screens at the 'regular' stage end, were adeptly conducted by Oliver Gooch. Despite the unusual set up, the vocal balance was perfect and the orchestra never parted company with the singers.
As the work was sung in Italian (not always the case in this kind of show), surtitles were projected at intervals around auditorium, just above the boxes. They could only manage four or five words at a time, which was a little annoying, but still better than the BBC's resolute refusal to use any at all at the Proms.
Although its size and layout means the RAH will never be the perfect opera venue, the ambience and service goes a long way to make up for it. The seats are comfortable, the viewing angles good from most, and there's a relaxed atmosphere you never find at Covent Garden. I was also pleasantly surprised that we were allowed to take drinks in. This is not something that works everywhere, but here it added to the welcoming ambience without in any way distracting from the show. Coincidentally or not, there was NO gratuitous coughing whatsoever. Something to think about.