“Does she die in the end?” asks my 10 year old daughter. There are very few (if any) children in the audience of the Bristol Hippodrome because this is opera. Puccini. A tale of bohemian poverty, love and loss. La Bohème is in no way a family show but, as it turns out, it is the right one to bring her to. At 2 hours 10 minutes, it’s short and the plot is simple.
Universal, in fact. Boy meets girl, they fall in love, they separate, the reunite. Erm, she dies.
The play opens in a Parisian garret with four friends of the creative bent, living hand-to-mouth on Christmas Eve. They are so poor that they have to burn Rodolfo the Poet’s (Matteo Lippi) manuscript for immediate warmth and eat imaginary banquets. But there is plenty of bonhomie and the friends take delight in tricking their landlord out of the rent they owe him, thus freeing up some much needed funds, then spent extravagantly. After Marcello the Painter (Gary Griffiths), Colline the Philosopher (Jihoon Kim) and Schaunard the Musician (Gareth Brynmor John) have decamped to Cafe Momus in the Latin Quarter, leaving Rodolfo alone to finish his writing, Seamstress Mimi (tonight played by Jessica Muirhead) knocks on his door to request a flame for her candle and it’s a meeting of hearts, undeniable love at first sight. The pair eventually join the others at Cafe Momus, encountering the vibrant streets of Paris, which are bustling with joyful shoppers. It is at Momus that we first encounter the coquettish Musetta the Singer (Lauren Fagan), on-off lover of the hopelessly infatuated Marcello – the pair reunite.
In act three, we are taken from the revelries of yuletide Paris to the harsh realities of the workers’ city on a freezing dawn, sounds of partying in the background. It is during this act that Mimi discovers Rodolfo’s concern that he can’t support his desperately ill lover and that she should find a more financially secure suitor but, reluctant to part, they stay together until the Spring, when new paths can be more easily trodden. The final act opens up with two unhappily separated couples and the four male friends revelling in fanciful play, which is soon flung into neglect as Musetta enters with a dying Mimi, whom she found on the dirty streets, and the friends rally round, selling their few treasures to buy the poor woman medicine. But, this is opera. And, of course, it is too late.
Stephen Brimson Lewis’s design is sparse yet lacks nothing. The living quarters of the friends is as bare as it should be, that great romantic city visible beyond, the sparsely furnished room filled to the damp hilt with love and friendship. For such an ultimately sad story, there is an abundance of mirth here, from the camaraderie of the impoverished creatives to the hustle of the crowds outside (though it’s so bustly that the crowd scene veers towards messy). After the interval, though, life seems to darken, as the falling snow and freezing fog surrounding the Paris tollgate illustrate the dire austerity and struggle to brilliant effect, Tim Mitchell’s lighting leaving us in no doubt that these are difficult times.
Welsh National Opera has produced an effortless evening of enjoyment for us, as we watch the enigmatic Manlio Benzi, our conductor, who can’t help but sing to his faultless orchestra, working with them to show us that this is about the music. The 60 or so musicians glide their way though La Bohème, complimenting our characters on stage throughout the performance. Muirhead is a very likeable Mimi, sweet and unassuming, with a soprano that manages (more than the other voices) to rise above the orchestra. Lauren Fagan is all glamour and fun, bringing sparkle and strength, balancing Mimi’s frailty. Sometimes the men’s voices, though, seem to be drowned out by the might of the music and I don’t have enough experience of opera to know whether this is how it’s supposed to be: if I were fluent in Italian and without the benefit of surtitles, I might struggle to follow the score? No matter, it doesn’t detract from the overall impressiveness of the night. I was particularly drawn to Jihoon Kim’s bass – his is a commanding magnetism (my daughter commented on him too).
If you don’t do opera, this might be the one to start with. If you can catch WNO’s production of La Bohème, then we’d both suggest you do. Definitely.
Welsh National Opera tours La Bohème until the end of April
You can see what else is coming up at Bristol Hippodrome on their website
Image by Robert Workman, with thanks