Mimi’s sickbed is the floor of her transit van. Rodolfo sits hunched against a wheel outside, the closest he dare get to his dying lover. Musetta makes her showy arrival in a convertible Merc, and an old ice-cream van serves as the Cafe Momus. Trailer-trash stagings are nothing new – many an old camper van has been rolled on to an operatic stage – but here we’re in a proper car park, this unparalleled season’s venue of choice for high art.
From soloists to musicians to conductor to stage crew to car park attendants, all involved in English National Opera’s drive-in La bohème deserve bravery awards. Surely this was the most physically exhausting and technically challenging production anyone has struggled to mount, made incalculably harder by social distancing. Man of the match goes to Ian Dearden, the sound design wizard who has a long history with ENO, and who found a way to bring the whole enterprise alive. The orchestra played wonderfully, harp and woodwind sounding close enough to be sitting in your lap, which is certainly a first.
We listened on car radios. Mine conked out halfway through. Someone else got a flat battery
That said, it was an alienating experience, made harder by being at a matinee in last weekend’s dazzling sunshine. Following the 90-minute show on two big screens was a hit-and-miss affair, subtitles illegible against the glare. Best was to concentrate on singers’ faces and abandon hope of detail in PJ Harris’s production, designed by Chloe Lamford. Evening performances look to have been a different matter. For those who didn’t know the opera, it might have been far more rewarding. The young breakdancers – engaging enough but an awkward intrusion as presented, with their own electro soundtrack – would have been welcome as a warm-up act. Puccini’s original, such a perfect structure, doesn’t need add-ons.
We listened on car radios. Mine conked out halfway through. Someone else got a flat battery. Hearing through the window was fine. I saw the admirable second cast led by Nardus Williams and David Junghoon Kim as sympathetic and touching lovers, conducted by Martin Fitzpatrick. The event was well organised if, at £103 per car (plus congestion charge), costly. This was a brave experiment – a starting point, if not yet an arrival. The next venture will be better.
• La bohème is at Alexandra Palace, London, until 27 September