Music: Giacomo Puccini
Libretto: Giuseppe Giacoso and Luigi IllicaAnita
Director: Phyllida Lloyd
Revival Director: Michael Barker-Caven
Conductor: Andreas Delfs
Reviewer: Jo Beggs
Phyllida Lloyd’s La Boheme is squalid. Nobody’s going away tonight with romantic visions of bohemian Paris, the charmed life of the artist, starving but nourished by his own genius. Lloyd pairs this extraordinary opera back to the bare bones, and you can’t help but think that this is how Puccini intended it to be.
Set in a squalid artist’s garret in Paris, poet Rodolfo and his three friends are struggling to keep their stomachs full, the fire stoked and the landlord paid. Then, unexpectedly, into Rodolfo’s life stumbles Mimi, a seamstress who lives elsewhere in the crumbling building. Mimi doesn’t see the squalor though, she sees the view over her rooftops and the rising sun, and it’s not long before these two dreamers have eyes for nothing but one another. Lloyd’s sparse production brings to the fore this intensity and single mindedness, with flawless performances delivered by Ji-Min Park as Rodolfo and Anita Watson as Mimi. When Ji-Min Park embarks on the glorious Che Gelida Manina (What a Cold Little Hand) and then the two duet all else falls away – the cluttered set, and even the surtitles, seem suplurflus.
Puccini wasn’t yet forty when he wrote this opera, and a bit of a bohemian himself, spending a lot of time hanging out with other artists, drinking and gambling. It’s no stretch of the imagination to think that Rodolfo and his friends are based on Puccini’s own contemporaries. Lloyd’s production not only delivers a hugely affecting love story but a delightful picture of male friendship – the banter, foolishness and love that hold this band of brothers together. Duncan Rock as the painter Marcello and Ji-Min Park bring a youthful energy to the early scenes. Life may be hard but these two are there for each other.
Of course, all the banter and camaraderie aside, things are not destined to go well. Mimi is sickening at an alarming rate. Rodolfo blames his draughty apartment but in Ji-Min Park’s performance there’s an overwhelming sense that he just can’t take the responsibility – or deal with the loss. His head tells him he needs to leave her, his heart just can’t agree. He’s an emotional mess, drinking until dawn, crashing out on nightclub floors. Anthony Ward’s set and costume design create a suitably squalid twilight world, where couples argue outside a seedy club and whores stumble around looking for their next trick.
Act Two – a cluttered Christmassy crowd scene – sits rather awkwardly within this paired down production. The children’s chorus seems unnecessary and a little under-rehearsed and the glitzy design and jolly choreography jars against, rather than complements, the gritty realism of the other acts. Lloyd seems much more at home with the spiralling tragedy.
And she delivers it in great style in the final act as Mimi dies in the garret, laid on a filthy mattress, under a threadbare blanket. It’s a overly dramatic, impossibly bleak scene, the music tears at the heartstrings and can so easily tip into melodrama, but here there’s a heartrending sadness to the whole affair, with perfectly measured performances. Watson is totally convincing when she declares that this grim place is beautiful as she lies in the arms of her lover, surrounded by their friends.
Lloyd’s La Bohome has been around for some time now, and hardly surprising as it’s a real winner, an ideal production for opera novices or old hands – neither will be disappointed.
Runs until 17 May 2014