Puccini’s dramatisation of artistic life in Paris, first performed in 1896, is probably the best known and most often performed opera in the world. As such, it presents a special set of challenges to any director. Audiences usually come with memories of other productions: so any new production has to earn its keep by challenging pre-conceptions and trying to view the opera as if for the first time. However, innovation for its own sake is also perilous. It will run up against Puccini’s own supreme gifts as an expert man of the stage who knew how to build drama and emotion through interplay of character, melody and an effortless art of transition like no one else. This new production by the award-winning Benedict Andrews (A Streetcar Named Desire) demonstrates fine imagination and flair at many points but is also guilty of a gratuitous sensation-seeking that denies his work the highest accolade.
La Bohème is a study both of two couples and of a way of life. Rodolfo (Zach Barichevsky), a poet and Marcello (Duncan Rock) a painter share a studio and struggle to make ends meet. They pair off with Mimì, a seamstress and Musetta, a singer, both equally marginalised. The opera sketches in the difficulties in their relationships, caused as much by poverty and circumstance as temperament. This is off-set at intervals by colourful crowd scenes, mainly set in the Café Momus, which evoke the camaraderie and freedom of the artistic life. There are four acts, and the tone noticeably darkens in the final two as Mimì’s health worsens. The work contains one of the most famous love duets and – finally – death scenes in opera, but Puccini even at this early stage in his career places the emotional peaks artfully and balances the tragedy with plenty of opportunities for collective comic bravura.
Things get off to a cracking start. The orchestra, directed throughout by Xian Zhang with exactly the right blend of incisive yet responsive give-and-take, sets the a scene of joshing male camaraderie between Rodolfo, Marcello and their chums Schaunard (Ashley Riches) and Colline (Nicholas Masters). We are in a large white loft apartment, more Shoreditch than Paris. Everyone is in their element. The tone then changes as fragile Mimì enters and meets Rodolfo. The love duet that eventually emerges is well judged by the principals, but before that the director intervenes pointlessly and excessively to have both of them shoot up with heroin, thus distorting a delicate and sufficient scene of introduction that just needs to be left alone to work its magic. This quest for novelty spectacularly misfires.
Fortunately this incident is the only major ugly blot on this production, and thereafter interventions add to rather than subtract from the impact of the whole. For example the revolving box sets of the Café Momus, now reinvented as a shopping mall, provide a fine dynamic setting both for the seething Christmas-tide crowds, and Musetta’s provocative main aria; likewise, the contrasting open bleakness of a snow-covered construction-site with brazier in the following act serves well to underline the increasing isolation of the characters. And in the finale, now back in the loft-space, the direction is unfussy and focused on delivering a moving and unvarnished dénouement.
All the singers are at home in the large space of the Coliseum, and act well. The vocal honours go to Corinne Winters for a characterisation of gathering intensity and pathos as Mimì and Duncan Rock for a fully- rounded depiction of Marcello as frustrated lover and artist.
All-in-all, therefore, this is an engrossing production that provokes in both positive and negative ways.