Sign up for our weekly newsletter

La Bohème

Giacomo Puccini, libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica
Ellen Kent and Opera and Ballet International
Sunderland Empire

Among all opera composers, there is no one who jerks a tear quite like Giacomo Puccini, and nowhere does he do it more effectively than in La Bohème.

It may begin light-heartedly with the four Bohemians—the painter Marcello, the poet Rodolfo, the philosopher Colline and the musician Schaunard—clowning around and, not for the first time, avoiding paying their landlord Benoit his rent, but with the appearance at the attic door of seamstress Mimi whose candle has blown out we launch into that trio of arias (we might almost call them a triptych), Rodolfo’s "Che gelida manina", Mimi’s "Mi chiamano Mimi" and the great, spine-tingling culmination, "O soave fanciulla", and the stage is set for the most heart-rending of operas.

And as these act 1 themes and motifs return throughout the opera, so does that frisson.

So what of Ellen Kent’s production?

She began almost 25 years ago as a producer and now directs so it can truly be called Ellen Kent’s production. However this is not the spectacular eye-catching style of production for which she made her name—her Rigoletto of 2006 with its naked courtesans and golden eagle springs to mind—but, appropriately, is much more domestic: no special effects, just a very traditional performance.

And by traditional I mean quite static. Even the act 1 clowning is restrained rather than lively and the performance style is mainly stand and sing straight out to the audience. It is a style which would not have been out of place at the original performance in 1896 or, indeed, at any other time since.

I did, however, find the chorus—not that there’s a great deal for it to do in this opera except fill the stage in act 2—a little disappointing. The only life came from the little girls from a local Stagecoach school whose constant jumping up and down in excitement contrasted totally with the seemingly motiveless milling around of the adults.

Ukrainian soprano Alyona Kistenyova is deeply moving as Mimi but the acting honours go to French soprano Olga Perrier who captures all of Musetta’s brightness—and sparkiness! Both sing beautifully.

In fact, all of the singing is superb, especially from the two women and Spanish tenor Giorgi Meladze as Rodolfo and Chisinau National Opera soloist Iurie Gisca as Marcello. It is the singing which makes this production, gives it its life and power, for emotional power there is in abundance from that magical moment when both voices join and soar in "O soave fanciulla" to the gentle, almost unnoticed passing away of Mimi as act 4 draws to a conclusion.

Yet again Puccini works his magic and, around where I was sitting at least, the tears flowed.

Reviewer: Peter Lathan