La Boheme

Scottish Opera

Neil Cooper

Four stars

Universal Basic Income probably wasn’t on Puccini’s mind back in the 1890s when he penned his backstreet tragedy of love and death amongst the starving artist set. How to make a living in the latter-day creative industries is nevertheless one of the many of-the-moment concerns in Scottish Opera’s ingenious new production, the company’s first for six months.

Using Jonathan Dove’s arrangement and a scaled down orchestra, director Roxana Haines reimagines the story for the Covid-19 created socially distanced age. Performed outdoors in what is normally the company’s car park, Haines’ new take sets the story among freelancers trying to get a break as they’re starved of work.

Chances are that writer Rodolfo, painter Marcello, busker Schaunard and thinker in residence Colline can beg, steal or borrow their way through things. For Elizabeth Llewellyn’s costume designer, Mimi, alas, it looks fatal. If only she’d got herself a sugar daddy like Marcello’s glamour chasing ex, Musetta, it might have been a different story. As Rodolfo declaims in Amanda Holden’s playful English translation, however, “The end of the world is upon us.”

The action is played out on the backs of trucks that form two of the three stages before a socially distanced audience sat at cabaret tables. Anna Orton’s site-specific design gives what follows the air of the sort of junkyard happening Puccini’s characters would undoubtedly hang out at. The accompanying splashes of graffiti designs by artpistol Projects that adorn the set reinforce such an image.

This gives an extra edge to the performances, led by Samuel Sakker as Rodolfo and a fabulous Llewellyn as Mimì, who, like Rhian Lois as Musetta, is making her Scottish Opera debut. Roland Wood’s Marcello leads the rest of the gang, aided by Arthur Bruce and David Ireland as Schaunard and Colline, while Francis Church’s Alcindoro foots the bill.

With performers keeping their distance, movement director Jessica Rhodes’ choreographed appearance expresses the sort of physicality currently not possible between consenting adults. The result is a production that lays bare the emotional heart of society in crisis.