With its tales of lost love and the heart-rending death of a main character, it is fair to say that Puccini’s La bohème has its share of heartbreak. This production by the Welsh National Opera approached the opera from a tragicomic perspective, resulting in a heart-warming interpretation of this opera house staple.
First performed in 1896, La bohème tells of the lives of a group of young bohemian artists who live in Paris. The opera focuses upon the relationship between the writer Rodolfo and his neighbour, Mimì. After a chance meeting on Christmas Eve, the two fall deeply in love. Fast-forward a few months, and the pair’s relationship is disintegrating: Rodolfo tells of his concern for Mimì, whose illness is getting worse. Although they separate in spring, a severely ill Mimì returns months later to die near Rodolfo.
Annabel Arden’s production set the scene in Edwardian Paris, the palette of greys suited to the grimy conditions in which the friends live. Not only was the production an auditory treat, but a visual one too: the thin veil hanging at the front of the stage had snow flurries projected onto it, and powdered snow fell while Mimì told Marcello of her desperate situation. Mimì’s costumes and makeup were particularly effective, tracing her declining health to great effect.
Act 2 (set in the Latin Quarter) was brilliantly surreal, mixing drag and debauchery in a visual feast. The chorus movement in this act was immaculately managed, but the tricky musical junction at the appearance of Parpignol (the toy seller) saw the singing children fall out of sync with the orchestra. On top of this, the first scene change seemed slightly messy. However, these were very minor flaws, and conductor Simon Phillippo’s interpretation was welljudged overall.
Alex Vicens’ velvety-voiced Rodolfo was brilliantly cast, and his Act 1 aria ‘Che gelida manina!’ was the high point of the entire opera. He also proved himself to be more than capable in terms of acting: his utterly devoted Rodolfo made the opera’s conclusion even more heartbreaking. Giselle Allen’s Mimì, although initially detached, came into her own in the fraught final two acts and Kate Valentine brilliantly fulfilled Musetta’s role as showstealer. She gave a commanding performance of ‘Quando me’n vo’’, and her presence in a scene seemed to push the cast to another level. Although the cast generally interacted well, it was David Kempster’s performance as a sympathetic Marcello which added cohesion to the group.
The WNO Orchestra were impressive in their ability to capture the changes the mood, conjuring completely different sounds for the rowdy apartment scenes and the bleakness of Act 3. Although the orchestral playing could have done with more dynamic variation in the first two Acts of the opera, they had clearly adjusted to the less-than-perfect acoustics of the New Theatre in Acts 3 and 4. Particularly notable were the string section, whose sweeping romantic sound captured perfectly the idealistic bliss of the lovers. At times, though, the orchestra could have gone even further in capturing the subtleties of the music: for example, the entrance of Benoit (who owns the garret that the friends live in) didn’t seem to take advantage of the satire embedded in the score.
The evening watching this top-class production flew by. The singers did justice to the soaring melodies, while the orchestra brought off Puccini’s score with style. This interpretation was unashamedly sentimental, but was tastefully done and certainly tugged at the heartstrings in all the right places.