La Bohème

Giacomo Puccini
Royal Albert Hall
(2004)

Joint operatic productions between Raymond Gubbay and the Royal Albert Hall have become an annual event. Judged by this production of La Bohème, they are massive and lavish English language spectacles performed in the round, that eschew some of the stuffiness of Covent Garden or the English National Opera.

With a cast and orchestra (the Royal Philharmonic under David Parry) numbering into three figures; and Peter J Davison's impressive set, no expense has been spared. The opera has been moved forwards to Paris in the late 1940s and a large well-lit traverse stage surrounded by railway tracks and even a truck, looks spectacular.

It also provides plenty of space for massive crowd scenes including a children's group, dancers, an acrobat and rather bizarrely, half a dozen roller-skating waiters straight out of Starlight Express.

Following a war, the cold and starvation that Rodolfo, Mimi and their artistic friends suffer transports well. While consumption is generally regarded as a 19th century malady, a rather ghoulish programme note lists "Famous People Who Suffered from Tuberculosis" and they included Adolf Hitler and George Orwell, both of whom died at around this time.

The story is well known to many, even if they have not previously seen the opera. Mimi, in this case a convincingly consumptive Mary Plazas, a tiny, bird-like lady with a big but very beautiful soprano voice, meets a group of struggling artists led by Peter Wedd as Rodolfo and his friend Marcello (Grant Doyle). They become caught up in the bohemian life, which allows Marcello to meet the capricious, redheaded Musetta ("Miss Temptation"), Majella Cullagh, another lady who on occasions demonstrates a powerful voice.

All too soon, the group's happiness has to come to an end as Musetta follows her inclinations and Mimi her destiny.

The singing, particularly from the main characters is generally fine, although the decision to use microphones will not only offend purists but backfired badly on the first night. The balance between the orchestra and singers was at best questionable and led to battles between them. Regrettably, the orchestra won on too many occasions and, in particular, tenor Peter Wedd's Rodolfo both struggled to be heard and regularly found his disembodied voice appearing from odd directions.

Even this could not significantly dampen the enjoyment of a spectacular production in a sold out Albert Hall that built nicely from the initial meeting of an innocent couple through happy days to Mimi's tragic end.

For those that are a little wary of opera with its elitist cachet, this far from stuffy Royal Albert Hall experience could prove a useful introduction. It is fast paced, looks great and with some minor technical tinkering could be vastly improved.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher