“If you only see one musical this year, see this opera!” This is the strap line on the glossy publicity for Puccini’s weepy in Phyllida Lloyd‘s classic production, premiered at Leeds Grand Theatre (almost unbelievably) back in 1993 and last revived in 2010. This time around, Opera North has embarked on a mission to woo newcomers by targeting La bohème at the musical theatre audience who might possibly be tempted to dip their toes into warmer operatic waters. The idea is that if you enjoyed West Side Story, Les Misérables or Phantom of the Opera, then Bohème is but a short step further. Opera North’s strategy would appear to have paid off, since 53% of tickets sold thus far are to newcomers to opera or at any rate new to Opera North.
This revival of Lloyd’s production is directed by Michael Barker-Caven and being staged at Leeds Grand Theatre in a continuous run of performances. Two strong and evenly matched young casts have been assembled for alternating performances along with two conductors. I was reviewing at the second press night and there was an excited and expectant buzz in the a uditorium. “Off-duty” singers chatted and settled down to watch their friends and colleagues in action. I certainly had no sense whatsoever prior to curtain-up or during the performance that I was experiencing either an “A” or a “B” team.
Lloyd’s genius in what was only her second opera production – her debut as an opera director had been Chabrier’s L’étoile for Opera North two years earlier – lies in her ability to make the characters feel as though they are relevant to our own lives today. Writing in the 2010 programme, Lloyd stated that “Bohemia can be found in virtually any large city at any time, if you know where to look”. Lloyd’s production is set in the 1950s – the decade of Marilyn Monroe and James Dean. Both remain enduring icons for many of today’s young people. In fact, Lloyd, and her designer Anthony Ward have clearly been inspired by the silver screen. Ward has set the action within a white picture frame, his recurring back drop of giant close-ups of the faces and pouting red lips of two young lovers is redolent of a Hollywood film poster during that perceived “golden” period. The atmosphere is less evocative of the Latin Quarter of Paris than an indeterminate inner city. The Bohemians shabby bed-sit could just as easily be a student-let owned by Rigsby in that brilliant 70s sitcom Rising Damp. Marcello’s crude poster-caricature of Benoît, their grasping landlord, with a tooth brush moustache and a scrawled slogan proclaiming “Benoît is a fascist” might have been created by Rigsby’s student radical tenants. Spartan furnishings include a wood burning stove against which the Bohemians warm their backs from time to time, a battered 1950s red leather armchair and, close to Marcello’s gleaming motorcycle, a grubby mattress later to becomes Mimi’s deathbed.
The 1950s espresso coffee bar furnished in red vinyl covered plastic bench seats and small round tables is unlikely to be the kind of joint in which Musetta’s rich patron, the well-posh Alcindoro, would be seen dead. But therein resides the enduring appeal of LLoyd’s production. She makes us believe in the universality of Puccini’s great opera. The tragic outcome of Rodolfo and Mimi’s love affair and its effect on a close-knit group of young people could happen to any of us. Mimi’s death marks the end of the Bohemians’ romantic dreams of their own youth, perhaps even the end of youth itself. There is plenty of physical horseplay and good humour amongst the four friends which even more starkly underlines the tragedy. The antics in Act IV with the return of John Savournin‘s sharply characterised Schaunard now in a glamorous frock, are interrupted by Musetta’s entrance with the deathly-white Mimi. As Mimi is helped to the mattress and propped up with cushions, Schaunard solemnly removes his Marilyn Monroe wig and stands with head bowed.
Act II is fast, vibrant and crowded with revellers, street artists and shoppers carrying gifts and Christmas trees. The marching band is dressed in Santa coats and hats which look fine if you happen to be feeling Christmassy! The Opera North Children’s Chorus dressed in their smart overcoats and scarves looked and behaved, for my taste, too much like pupils at a respectable private school than the lively street urchins that we are more used to seeing and hearing at this point. But this is a minor carp compared to my feelings concerning the end of Mimi and Rodolfo’s “O soave fanciulla”. This is appropriately sung beneath a giant silvery moon, but the effect is negated by keeping Rodolfo and Mimi at the front of the stage; so no magical fade-out of voices.
The young South-Korean tenor Ji-Min Park as Rodolfo dressed in black leather flying jacket and blue jeans looked the typical young Bohemian; his transmutation from fun-loving student to serious and concerned young man is convincing. Park’s explosion of grief in the final moments as Rodolfo sings off the word “Mimi” will break your heart. The timbre of the voice is fluid, rich and dark and he has the volume to cut through Puccini’s big tuttis; “Che gelida manina” was beautifully phrased with a climatic sustained, ringing high C. Park appeared genuinely moved by the torrent of bravos and cheers when he took his bow at the end of the performance. The chemistry between Park’s Rodolfo and Anita Watson as Mimi seemed real enough. Watson has a lovely creamy quality, the tone was steady, and her high notes beautifully floated in “Si, mi chiamano Mimi”. Mimi’s Act lll farewell “Donde lieta usci” was tender and poignant; her death scene quiet, delicately sung and deeply moving as indeed it must be. Duncan Rock as the volatile painter Marcello sang with elegance, powerfully igniting the flames of jealousy in his Act lll row with Sky Ingram‘s Musetta. The four voices deliciously blended in the ensuing quartet incorporating Rodolfo and Mimi’s extended farewell. Musetta preened herself in a luxurious leopard skin and black outfit as she delivered her Act ll waltz. Barnaby Rea‘sdeep Verdian bass, whose splendid voice was always deployed with subtlety, delicately coloured Colline’s lovely Act lV “Coat” aria with longing and regret. Jeremy Peaker, a member of the ON Chorus creates stand-out cameos and lively vocal characterisations as the seedy Benoîtand an impeccably tailored Alcindoro.
Co-incidentally, the gifted Venezuelan conductor Ilyrich Rivas was born in 1993 – the same year as the premiere of this production. This young man would appear to be destined for stardom; his sense of pace and dynamic contrasts were immaculate and he achieved perfect balance with the singers. Rivas startled the audience at the beginning of Act lll following the interval. The maestro was already concealed in the pit and, as the house lights dimmed, the Orchestra of Opera North played the two abrupt opening chords double fortissimo. A marvellous moment before settling down to watch the curtain rise on the gently falling snow with Puccini’s ravishing orchestral detail revealed here and bathed in light by this conductor and orchestra.
La bohème “the musical” is sung in Italian with English surtitles and continues at Leeds Grand Theatre until 10th May prior to visiting the Lowry, Salford Quays from 14th – 17th May. You can choose either the cast that I have reviewed here or: Sébastien Guèze (Rudolfo) GABRIELA IŞTOC (Mimi) Phillip Rhodes (Marcello) Jimmy Holliday (Colline) Gavan Ring (Schaunard) Lorna James (Musetta) Geoffrey Dolton (Benoît/Alcindoro). Andreas Delfs and Ilyrich Rivas conduct both casts.
This super show deserves to run and run, don’t miss it!
(Photos: Robert Workman via Opera North website)