Sweaty, hyperventilating and with frozen hands, I arrive at Europe’s first live drive-in opera like Mimi in La Bohème’s last act. Unlike the opera’s heroine, I can barely make myself understood by security staff, still less sing a showstopper that would have them sobbing in their Ford Focuses. Have you ever cycled up the hill to London’s Alexandra Palace?
The unintended genius of English National Opera’s modern-day, 90-minute staging of Puccini’s opera is to spread the class politics from stage to audience. The VIPs are ushered to the best seats in the house – that’s to say cars parked near the stage. These are called “uber boxes”, though, as far as I can see, they are Toyota Priuses in which up to four people can sit. (There’s no need for a driver since these cars aren’t going anywhere.) Behind are the middle classes who’ve come in their own vehicles (£100 per car). Hotel Chocolat servers take orders for ice cream, chocolates and drinks. Surtitles above the stage tell drivers to tune their radios to 87.7FM to get the best audio, though quite a few have their windows open to hear the music from speakers placed around the car park. All the singers are miked.
Meanwhile, 20 or so cyclists (£35 per bike) are directed towards socially distanced cells on the concrete. No server asks us what we’d like to order from the Hotel Chocolat concession. Luckily, I had been advised to bring something to sit on: I take my place on my garden kneeler.
John Lennon once asked the people in the cheap seats to clap and the others to rattle their jewellry. Here, cyclists clap, motorists honk. Most behave well, given the opportunities for disrupting the action by revving motors or flashing lights. Returning from the loo, though, one woman slams her car door loudly, interrupting the wonderful Natalya Romaniw as Mimi singing her heart out. Unforgivable.
Al fresco Ally Pally audiences have seen grime stars and blockbuster movies but nothing like this. ENO’s return to live opera is astutely devised to cultivate sceptical newbies and keep within Covid-safe guidelines. There’s an online guide to attending your first opera and, at the start of the show, the droll Trevor Eliot Bowes as landlord-cum-security guard Benoît tells the audience: “I know this is opera but try to enjoy yourselves.” You can leave your car during the show to go to the loos at the back of the car park, he says, but only if you wear a mask. Despite this, I notice several people heading that way unmasked, some of them smoking – – which you definitely can’t do in ENO’s auditorium at the Coliseum. This is opera but not as we’ve known it.
Behind the stage is a wall of scaffolding, like the one Stormzy filled with backing dancers during his 2019 Glastonbury set. Here the scaffolding houses ENO’s reduced orchestra, while conductor Martyn Brabbins is raised into place on the platform of a scissor lift.
Then something bizarre happens. A Deliveroo driver cycles up a ramp to the stage. It’s poète maudit Rodolfo (the vocally thrilling David Butt Philip) at the end of his shift and the opera has begun. He’s arrived home, not at a Parisian garret but at a hipster encampment of vans in a London car park, just like the one we’re sitting on.
Inside one van, seamstress Mimi is stitching and while the painter Marcello (Roderick Williams channelling, at least visually, Ian Dury) is daubing hippyish designs on his own van while philosopher Colline (bass William Thomas, captivating in his final aria) is also filming the scene, his black-and-white footage occasionally projected on to the huge screens flanking the stage. From my concrete square, I worry whether Puccini’s heart-catching music can survive this visual noise.
Backpacking trombonist Schaunard returns with a wad of cash to blow at an artisanal street food market, which is where act two unfolds after the ice cream and hot-dog vans have parked up on stage. Rodolfo says he’ll be along later but has got a newspaper review to finish. The words – sung in English – are clear, but I do find myself following the action via the surtitles. Rodolfo’s review is set aside as Mimi arrives and seduces him from his laptop. This, trust me, never happens in real life.
Some jerk in a Merc is honking his horn from the car park. It’s Musetta’s rich admirer Alcindoro (registration plate: BIG AL) making his gaudy entrance. Up to this moment, Chloe Lamford’s production design has been so cutely site-specific, with camper vans and cars mingling with the stationary audience, but director PJ Harris and choreographer Dannielle Lecointe’s interlude of generic street dancing and tokenistic hip-hop just seems embarrassing. This is a stage where Skepta played, for heaven’s sake: if ENO wants to be on-trend it need to up its game. Or maybe ditch the hip-hop.
As dusk falls over Ally Pally, Mimi starts her stagey cough. Sublimity and silliness often battle for mastery in Puccini, no more so than in the foreshadowing of Mimi’s death. Translator Amanda Holden has updated the action but resisted giving Mimi’s tuberculosis topical resonance. I’d have been tempted to.
Despite the drolleries of set design and costume, sublimity triumphs. As Mimi lies dead and grief-stricken Rodolfo flees between parked cars, as if towards the garden centre (mate, it’s closed for the night), the production contrives to be deeply moving, despite the fact that the communal pleasure of being in a live audience is almost entirely lacking. A spattering of applause is drowned out by car horns. The singers and musicians’ curtain calls seem perfunctory – understandable given that the audience is atomised and mostly invisible in their cars. The usually warm connection between artists and audience at the end of a show is lost in the chill of the new normal.
Leaving the motorists in what looks like a long queue to exit the car park, I cycle through north London cherishing something lovely about this drive-in Puccini: the memory of how our quotidian of Uber, Deliveroo, social distancing parameters and the Domnishambles of Covid government is transfigured by the heartbreak of love.