English National Opera’s ‘Drive and Live’ production of ‘La bohème’ © Lloyd Winters

One of the problems of online concerts that do not have an audience is the deadening silence at the end. Here, by contrast, at a drive-in performance of La bohème, a cacophony of car horns hooted out at the close of every aria, a creative answer to socially distanced applause for the coronavirus era.

This was English National Opera’s first drive-in opera; probably — they claim — the world’s first. Puccini’s La bohème is getting a run of performances, dubbed “Drive and Live”, in the east car park at Alexandra Palace, the vast hall — formerly the home of a BBC television station — that looks out over the city from its lofty perch in north London.

It is the first full-scale live opera to be seen in London for six months and offers a novel way of getting around coronavirus restrictions, as the audience remain seated in their cars. Other recent car park operas, such as the Deutsche Oper’s Wagner, never thought of that.

Director PJ Harris sets the action in a car park © Lloyd Winters

Imagine this as a drive-in movie, but showing Puccini instead of a Hitchcock classic or a Star Wars marathon. The action takes place on a large, temporary stage with screens on either side for close-ups and surtitles (long sight a bonus, possibly a must). For the audio, the audience tune to 87.7M on the car radio and can leave the windows open for a surround-sound buzz. As a one-off experience, it is fun enough as far as it goes.

On the downside, the opera does not feel very involving, partly to do with the action being far off, partly the less-than-clear words, but the music still packs an emotional punch. Not even opera in a car park can leave the tear ducts entirely dry in Puccini.

The opera is trimmed, nothing important going by the board, but some of the time what is saved gets taken up by adding interludes for street kids dancing. How far this makeover will attract the new, young, trendy audience ENO has in its sights is questionable, when the audience’s cars at the Sunday matinee included a clutch of Range Rovers, a gleaming Bentley, and a fabulous vintage car, c.1925.

Sporting a wry sense of humour, director PJ Harris actually sets ENO’s drive-in La bohème in a car park. The impoverished Mimì, Rodolfo and friends live in vans, while glitzy Musetta makes her entrance in a sports car.

There are two casts. This was the second, headed by a most poetic Rodolfo in David Junghoon Kim. The microphones were not quite as flattering to the others, but Nardus Williams’s Mimì is fully involved and touching, and there is a sturdy band of modern Bohemians in Matthew Durkan, Ross Ramgobin and Jonathan Lemalu, while Sydney Mancasola adds sparkle as Musetta. Conducting high up on a hydraulic platform, Martin Fitzpatrick held the performance together, though more drive and passion would not come amiss.

Do not compare this to other La bohèmes. Just think of it as fun outing, a rare live opera in the midst of a musical famine.

★★★★☆

To September 27, eno.org

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