WNO’s Moving and Well-Sung La Bohème

05/06/2012

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Puccini, La Bohème: (New Production): Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Welsh National Opera, Carlo Rizzi, conductor, Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff, 1.6.2012 (GPu)

Cast:

Rodolfo: Alex Vicens
|Mimi: Anita Hartig
Marcello: David Kempster
Musetta: Kate Valentine
Colline: David Soar
Schaunard: Gary Griffiths
Benoit: Howard Kirk
Parpignol: Michael Clifton-Thomas
Alcindoro: Martin Lloyd
Customs Official: Laurence Cole
Customs Sergeant: Stephen Wells

Prooduction:

Designer: Stephen Brimson Lewis
Lighting Designer: Tim Mitchell
Projection Designer: Nina Dunn
Video Programmer: Sam Hunt
Chorus Master: Stephen Harris

 

Annabel Arden’s new production of La Bohème attempts no startling revelations or unexpected profundities; it is essentially quite traditional, and respects Puccini’s strongly theatrical sense of shape and pace. We seem to be in the Paris of just before the First World War, though the artistic world on show displays few signs, if so, that this was the Paris of Satie and Cocteau, Picasso and Apollinaire. Marcello is no Cubist and the world that he and his friends occupy seems peculiarly archaic in such a setting. Still there’s a liveliness to events (at times the production is perhaps just a little too busy, a little too fussily active) on stage which carries an audience with it. The projections used serve well enough as reminders (should we need it) that we are in Paris. Each act was prefaced by a front drop on which a kind of diamond shaped opening grew in size to allow the audience, initially, to peep in on events. The effect was both to frame and distance the stage world, to make of it a kind of historic picture postcard of Paris, but also to invite the audience into that stage world. There were a few irritations – I found my attention too often sidetracked by revolving flats at the side of the stage which, particularly in Act IV attracted and reflected light in a seriously distracting manner. There were also some strong theatrical moments, as in Mimi’s entrance, breaking up the childish games in the garret in Act IV. For the most part the production was content to support the larger arch of the opera’s concise and well-calculated dramatic trajectory and had the great virtue of allowing the singers to get on with their work.

And, almost without exception, that work was well done. The young Romanian soprano Anita Hartig was an excellent and ardent Mimi, her voice superb at the top end, capable of moments of real radiance, and subtly (and appropriately) varied in tone throughout. She has sung the role before in a number of productions and is already booked to sing it at the Royal Opera house in London, at La Scala and at the Met. It isn’t hard to see why and it was a real pleasure to hear her WNO debut. Already very accomplished, her career will surely be worth watching and hearing in the next few years. As Rodolfo, Spanish tenor Alex Vicens made an impressive start with “Che gelido manina”, both passionate and disciplined and with an attractive sense of line and phrase; later there was a little less nuance of expression and not too much variation of tone; but this was a generally pleasing performance, with some fine moments and plenty of effective touches of characterisation. The duets of Mimi and Rodolfo were uniformly good, the voices very well balanced and complementary and a plausible ‘chemistry’ was created. David Kempster was in good voice as a Marcello both robust and easily moved; indeed he made the character more interesting than he normally is in productions of the opera; Kate Valentine’s Musetta was a thoroughly engaging presence, which also got beyond the clichés often settled for in this role; vocally there was some slight shrillness early on but then she settled into an assured and secure performance. David Soar’s Colline was nicely thoughtful, with his ‘Vecchia zimmari, senti’ very moving in its thoughtful dignity. Gary Griffiths’ Schaunard was wittily acted and very decently sung. Indeed, there were no weaknesses in the cast – there was a delightful cameo from Howard Kirk as the landlord Benoit and Michael Clifton-Thomas is an engagingly offbeat Parpignol. The Chorus, supplemented by a cast of lively children, were (as they almost unfailingly are) highly accomplished, both vocally and dramatically.

It was a pleasure to have Carlo Rizzi back in front of the orchestra of Welsh National Opera; his command of Italian opera is outstanding and everything the orchestra did here spoke of his innate understanding of Puccini’s musical language (and, of course, of the orchestra’s ability to do justice to it). Rarely have I heard such beauty discovered in the orchestral introduction to Mimi’s “Sono andati?” in Act IV, and everywhere Rizzi’s understanding of the singers’ needs was evident.

Musically, then, this was a very enjoyable and touching evening. The much trumpeted new production was largely effective, without being especially exciting or revelatory. But, given what can happen when directors impose an excessively personal vision on an opera such as this, these comments are not meant to damn with faint praise.

Glyn Pursglove

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