Music: Giacomo Puccini
Original Director: Phyllida Lloyd
Revival Director: Michael Barker-Craven
Conductor: Renato Balsadonna
Reviewer: Jim Gillespie
Puccini’s opera La Boheme premiered in Turin in 1896. Just over a year later, it received it’s UK premiere at the Theatre Royal, Manchester, only a few miles from Salford’s Lowry Theatre, where Opera North brings its latest incarnation. The Manchester debut was supervised by Puccini himslef, and the performance was in English. Tonight we must make do with translation screens to either side of the stage.
While we have Puccini, and his librettists to thank for the original material, the current production has an inheritance which includes Baz Luhrmann’s 1990 production for Opera Australia, re-worked by Phyllida Law for Opera North in 1991, and revived by numerous others, including current Director, Michael Barker-Craven. With such parentage, it is not too difficult to see threads from the original material in works as diverse as Mama Mia! and Moulin Rouge.
Less a narrative than a sequence of connected scenes, we follow the romantic and social interactions of a group of impoverished artists centred on the Paris of the late 1950’s (originally the 1880’s). The seamstress Mimi, and the poet Rodolfo, fall helplessly and hopelessly in love, while around them a ragtag group of friends, chancers and low-life eke out lives which straddle extreme poverty, artistic ambition, and exuberant partying. The lyrical romanticism of the central characters is frequently contrasted with, or underscored by, the more carnal and unstable relationship of their friends Marcello and Musetta. Mimi succumbs to consumption, and the romance ends in tragedy.
The summary shows up the paucity of the core storyline, but its simplicity is also what makes it so accessible, so comprehensible: No significant sub-plots to distract, no confusing role changes or disguises, no gods or demons intruding on the action. Simply human beings, who in this adaptation even dress like us, dream like us, live, fight, dance, love and die like us. No wonder the connection to the audience is so strong.
The challenge for the production is to convey that authenticity of feeling, through the mannered medium of classical opera. This requires acting skills of a high order, as well as the singing skills necessary to carry Puccini’s sublime score, and the power to surf the strength of a well-drilled orchestra under the baton of Renato Balsadonna. Because of such demands on the cast, performers rotate in the roles, but the principals selected for the opening night in Salford rose to the occasion in great style. Lauren Fagan captures Mimi’s brittle vulnerability from her first entrance, and manages to invest her singing with enormous vigour, even while visibly fading on her death bed. Eleazar Rodriguez is an endearing Rodolfo, and Yuriy Yurchuk as the louche Marcello is the perfect foil to his friend. Anush Hovhannisyan is scintillating as the flamboyant Musetta, and her burlesque treatment of the aria Quando m’en vo is a show-stopping moment.
The staging is kept simple for the artists’ flat which bookends the opera. The set design for the intervening two acts is more elaborate, with a wide revolving bench seat in the second, which adds to the sweep and swagger of the party atmosphere. A gauze screen in the third act separates the interior and exterior of the night club, with lighting changes highlighting the dominant area of action. In itself this worked very well, but with a scene change required to return us to bohemian squalor for Act IV, there is an inevitable hiatus of several minutes. Just long enough for the real world to intrude into the alternative reality that we are wallowing in.
While the story can be reduced to little more than the doomed romance between Mimi and Rodolfo, there are so many other contributions to the production which deserve credit, including the charm and energy of the children from the Opera North Youth Company. Their vitality sparkles like champagne in the Cafe Momus scene.
Ultimately, La Boheme works if the intensity of the work is delivered with sufficient authenticity, skill, subtlety, and artistic authority, to move the audience, to connect them with the action, and to stir an emotional response. Job done.
Runs at The Lowry until 15th November 2019 | Image: Richard H Smith