Michael Barker-Caven’s able revival of Phyllida Lloyd’s 1993 production of La Bohème for Opera North, gives us a layered and richly rewarding take on Puccini’s classic tale of bohemian Paris.
Lloyd’s transposition of this late Victorian tale to the 1950s not only permits designer Anthony Ward to revel in the hope-fuelled fashion of the period, but also imbues act two (set in the expensive Momus café) with a punchier sense of conflict between classes, values and generations.
La Bohème is not Tosca, however, and this production never attempts to lean too heavily on the political. Instead, what we get is perhaps the clearest account I have yet to see that this is a story of two couples, not one. Of course, the story Marcello and Musetta will always be secondary to that of Rodolfo and Mimi, but the more prominent the former, the more complex our experience of the latter.
Four young friends, the poet Rodolfo (Eleazor Rodriguez), the painter Marcello (Yuriy Yurchuk), the philosopher Colline (Emyr Wyn Jones) and the musician Schaunard (Henry Neill), are pursuing the life of the Starving Young Artist.
In the biting cold of winter, Rodolfo elects to sacrifice his script to the fire.
“It’s brilliant,” observes Colline with philosophical irony, as his friend’s “masterpiece” flares in the stove.
Happily, Schaunard the musician returns loaded with goodies, having been employed for several days by an eccentric English lord to play to his pet parrot until it expired. Once they’ve confused and evicted their landlord, Benoit (portrayed by Jeremy Peaker as a kind of Benoit Hill), three of them head off to eat at the swish Café Momus, leaving Rodolfo to finish an article before joining them.
There is a power outage and, struggling to work by the light of a candle, Rodolfo is interrupted by a knock at the door. It is their neighbour, the seamstress Mimi, who is in need of assistance as her candle has blown out. Rodolfo invites her in and, over the next few minutes (courtesy of two of the maestro’s most famous arias – “Che gelida manina” and ‘Si. Mi chiamano Mimi”), they fall in love. Sadly, Mimi is already blighted by the illness that will carry her away.
After meeting up with the others at the Café Momus, Musetta (Marcello’s former lover) arrives with her sugar daddy in tow. Marcello can barely contain his jealousy, which Musetta (Anush Hovhannisyan) works tirelessly to provoke, vamping it up to 11 in her sexually-loaded aria, “Quando m’en vo’”. In the end, Marcello cannot resist and he and Musetta share a passionate (and comic) reunion, while the older man (in absentia) foots the bill.
So, joyfully, ends act two and, in the way of tragic romantic operas, it’s all downhill from here.
In acts three and four, the production becomes an ever more effective contrast between the two love affairs. The jealous rages of the two young men spring from very different emotional wells. Marcello’s passionate (and occasionally violent) outbursts, seemingly deliberately provoked by the wildly sensual Musetta (a siren with claws in Hovhannisyan’s portrayal), while Rodolfo’s envious rants mask his growing sense of inadequacy and despair, as Mimi slides towards the doom her consumption decrees for her.
While Rodriguez finds himself battling against the pit in his solo moment (a problem likely exacerbated by the acoustic of the Lyric theatre), there is a clear onstage chemistry between him and Lauren Fagan’s Mimi which supplies their duets with a rare emotional truth. When they sing together it is genuinely moving, a tangible chill pervades the auditorium (shiver down the spine stuff).
Fagan’s performance as Mimi is the highlight of a very strong ensemble. True, she has less to fight against (in terms of orchestral volume) than does Rodolfo, but her delivery imbues every syllable with meaning. A true opera diva must inhabit the character as well as the score, and Fagan earns a rousing ovation for her capacity to do just that.
Half a pace back from Fagan’s Mimi is the Marcello of Ukrainian baritone Yuriy Yurchuk – power and passion meld with an underlying decency and genuine love (for Musetta and for his friends). Yurchuk exudes presence without having to strain for it.
Barker-Caven’s direction is shot through with delicious touches – the way in which the single blanket possessed by the four friends is passed from one to another as each enters from the cold (a clever but telling gesture of true friendship); the moment when Mimi’s glove launches like an Evel Knievel bike jump, soaring over several bodies, to land unerringly on the seething Marcello’s shoulder; and many others.
Having worked to such good effect to draw parallel images of troubled young love, it feels like a false step to leave Marcello and Musetta grieving alone, isolated in opposite corners, as the curtain falls. However, this is a minor gripe in a production that is a major success.
Once again, Opera North demonstrate that classic pieces need never become tired and over-familiar when re-imagined with thought and dynamism.★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Opera North is at The Lowry from 12-16 November 2019.