La Bohème

Giacomo Puccini
Welsh National Opera
Bristol Hippodrome

Production photo

The WNO are on fine form with this revival of La Bohème, the company's second Puccini production this year following Tosca in August. Rome gives way to Paris where, as the curtain rises, a group of impoverished pals and artists manqué are staving off hunger and the cold in a freezing garret.

The opera received a muted welcome on its premiere in Turin in 1896 chiefly, it has been suggested, because of the lack of spectacle afforded by the story. Audiences were used to opera on the large scale. La Bohème swiftly gained popularity, however, and by 1984, Goran Jarvefelt, the director of the first staging of this adaptation by the WNO, was remarking that "operas can be loved too much", that is, affection for an opera can blind an audience to the shortcomings of a production of it.

Happily, this issue does not arise here. True, it is unlikely to win over those who dismiss Puccini as melodrama and who would be apt to remark on the death of Mimi - as Oscar Wilde did on that of Little Nell - that you would have to have a heart of stone not to laugh. But the story itself, based on a semi-autobiographical account of life in the Latin Quarter, is not in fact overly sentimental. The trials and tribulations of its Bohemian population are treated lightly and though the opera ends tragically, what runs through the story is an abiding love of life and its many pleasures, which is highlighted at the beginning of the second act when Mimi and Rodolfo join his flatmates at the bustling Café Momus in the Latin Quarter.

Puccini would go on to expand his musical palette in operatic works like Turandot and Madame Butterfly, adding such instruments as gongs and xylophones to the conventional range of European orchestral instruments, in order to enhance to sense of the exotic, but that was in the future.

I loved the staging by Michael Yeargan - the artists' garret, Café Momus and the Barrière d'Enfer - which are beautifully lit in John Waterhouse's design. In the Latin Quarter scene, Mimi, Rodolfo and chums are foregrounded in a warm, golden light, while behind them, children play, couples come and go and sellers ply their trade in a silverish, wintry light.

The production is strongly cast with Gwyn Hughes Jones shining especially brightly as a crisp, ardent Rodolfo, well-partnered by Rebecca Evans as Mimi despite some initial inaudibility, an outcome most likely of the vagaries of the Hippodrome acoustics, happily almost absent at this production. Among the rest of the cast, who were warmly received by an appreciative audience, Jason Howard as Marcello stood out, as did Charlotte Ellett as Musetta who sparkled vocally but who lacked perhaps the necessary sliver of ice in her heart as the "bird of prey who consumes human hearts".

No reservations, however, about the Orchestra of the Welsh National Opera, conducted here by Michel Klauza, who rise to the challenge of Puccini's score and whose rich sound enable this production to soar.

Reviewer: Pete Wood

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