Puccini’s trendy young bohemians have pitched up pretty much everywhere. Over the years I’ve seen them trade their Parisian garret for a Gloucestershire field (cows included), a London pub and a soggy Glasgow carpark – they even made it onto Broadway, with a little help from Baz Luhrmann. So while English National Opera’s new drive-in production at Alexandra Palace may be the first of its kind, it’s following in a long tradition.
There’s an upstart, against-the-odds spirit to a staging that, on a blazing hot Sunday afternoon, competes with shrieking children, passing sirens and planes overhead. Puccini’s story is about city life lived so fast and hard that people are lost in the crowd. Death goes unnoticed, lives and relationships crumble and get rebuilt while neighbours are none the wiser. It’s unexpectedly poignant to put it back in the heart of that action, especially now.
The logistics of the thing are terrifying, from a reduced orchestra perched on scaffolding high above the socially-distanced singers to an audience tuned into ENO’s own radio frequency to hear the performance. Director PJ Harris keeps the onstage action sympathetic. These are modern-day dropouts: Rodolfo moonlights for Deliveroo when not knocking out poems and articles; Colline is a gonzo filmmaker pursuing the action with his camera; Mimi is queen of polyester, her My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding designs spilling out of a dingy camper van.
Two casts alternate performances – all young and talented, catching the exaggerated intensity and urgency of Puccini’s action (condensed even further here to fit a 90-minute run time). The effect is busy, all bright colours and big gestures, but oddly unmoving, despite the musicians’ best efforts.
Opera is a contact sport. It’s not like film or even musical-theatre; it thrives on intimacy, on the immediacy of a voice speaking straight to you with no mediating microphone or screen or filter. Banish it to a distant stage behind a windscreen, flatten out voices trained to pierce and project with amplification and radio technology, and you miss the point. ENO may have succeeded in breaking the mould, but if all the opera has leaked out through the cracks in the process then what’s left?