Music: Giacomo Puccini
Libretto: Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica
Director: Annabel Arden
Revival director: Caroline Chaney
Conductor: Simon Phillippo
Reviewer: Barbara Michaels
Welsh National Opera’s production of Puccini’s La Bohème was last staged at the Wales Millennium Centre back in 2012. One of the most frequently performed of all operas, La Bohème was described by Luciano Pavarotti as “The perfect opera” and indeed it has everything – wonderful music, soaring arias, and romance to break your heart, all melded together in a beautifully constructed whole with a master touch
Which also means – alas, for the poor critic – that it is looked at with an eagle eye every time it is performed. This revival, originally directed by Annabel Arden, is sensitive to the composer’s interpretation and, in the hands of revival director Caroline Chaney, wisely differs little from Arden’s atmospheric take, making striking use of projection, sets and costume to portray a city of contrasts, moving between poverty-stricken rooftop attics via snowy streets into the warmth of Christmas celebrations at the Café Momus, frequented by artists, writers and poets plus aristos and the demi-monde.
The story – in essence that of love in a garret (in this case a Parisian one) – focusses on the relationship between Rodolfo, a penniless poet, and Mimi, a young seamstress who makes artificial flowers for a living. They meet and fall in love on Christmas Eve, but their happiness is short-lived as Mimi’s health deteriorates and Rodolfo struggles to cope with his (unfounded) jealousy. Meanwhile, their friends Marcello and Musetta are involved in a tempestuous relationship. Spring comes – and with it the news that Mimi is gravely ill. Dreams of love turn to anguished sorrow as her health takes a downward turn.
Young soprano Marina Costa-Jackson, singing the demanding role of Mimi on opening night, rises superbly to the challenge of a role sung by so many world-renowned divas before her. Costa-Jackson brings to her performance a voice of exceptional purity and clarity, plus an understanding of the complexity of the role – the sweetness of her Mi chiamano Mimi ( They call me Mimi) in Act I contrasting with a touch of acerbic acidity in Act II when Rodolpho’s jealousy becomes too much for her.
Opposite her, as Rodolfo, Dominick Chenes has a melodic tenor in both the upper and lower registers, notably so in the aria (‘what a cold little hand’) in Act I and his duets with Costa Jackson, although could perhaps be more demonstrative in portraying Rodolpho’s grief in Act IV. Gary Griffiths, in the role of Rodolpho’s painter friend Marcello, has great stage presence and a fine baritone, heard to advantage in his solo arias and in duets with Musetta, sung by Lauren Fagan. Fagan handles this difficult role well, bringing out the tough side of the tart with a heart and holding back on the tenderness of the woman within until Act III.
Designer Stephen Brimson Lewis, who won an Olivier award for his work on Les Enfants Terrible, and lighting designer Tim Mitchell, who has worked extensively with the RSC, both bring considerable talent to this WNO production, although the use of revolving panels – a favourite ploy with the WNO – can be irritating at times.
With its superb libretto and Puccini’s music, La Bohème is non pareil, and this production a worthy addition to the list.
Runs 2-4, 11, and 15 February | Image: Robert Workman