United Kingdom Puccini, La Bohème (Production Revival): Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Welsh National Opera / Simon Phillippo (conductor), Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff, 8.9.2012 (GPu)
Rodolfo: Alex Vicens
Mimi: Giselle Allen
Marcello: David Kempster
Musetta: Kate Valentine
Colline: David Soar
Schaunard: Daniel Grice
Benoit: Howard Kirk
Parpignol: Michael Clifton-Thomas
Alcindoro: Martin Lloyd
Customs Official: Laurence Cole
Customs Sergeant: Stephen Wells
Director: Annabel Arden
Designer: Stephen Brimson Lewis
Lighting Designer: Tim Mitchell
Projection Designer: Nina Dunn
Video Programmer: Sam Hunt
Chorus Master: Stephen Harris
It is only just over three months since Annabel Arden’s largely successful production of La Bohème was premiered in Cardiff. Given that this might just as well be regarded as a later performance in the same run rather than as, strictly speaking a revival, most of what I said in reviewing the opening night at the beginning of June remains true (see review). There have been only minor adjustments to the production, mostly for the better ; the distracting reflection of light from shiny flats seems to have been tempered, for example. There are some cast changes – notably in the presence of a new Mimi – and a change of conductor. As one would expect, Simon Phillippo conducts with admirable efficiency and sensitivity, though, as so often the Orchestra of WNO doesn’t quite play with the final edge of Italianate passion that Rizzi tends to draw from it in Italian opera. It was to Manon Lescaut that Puccini was referring when he said that “Massenet feels it as a Frenchman, with powder and minuets. I shall feel it as an Italian, with desperate passion”.
It is that final edge of “desperate passion” that this production doesn’t quite have. Alex Vicens is a powerful Rodolfo, though a little more vocally monochromatic than he might ideally be in the later stages of the opera; there is also much to admire and enjoy in Giselle Allen’s Mimi, the voice well controlled and the characterisation increasingly detailed. Yet, the two don’t jerk the heart-strings as much as Rodolfo and Mimi can; the tissue count around me seemed rather lower than usual. Interestingly, Allen was perhaps at her most completely convincing in her Act III exchange with Marcello, feisty and strong, her voice simultaneously declamatory and registering her illness. Indeed, David Kempster’s outstanding Marcello was a common denominator in many of the evening’s best movements (such as the Act IV duet with Rodolfo, ‘O Mimi, tu più non torni’) and in almost all his scenes with the assured Musetta of Kate Valentine. Both Kempster and Valentine seem to have found rather more in their roles since that June premiere and that deepened understanding provides the ground work for a subtle account of a relationship which doesn’t feel altogether subsidiary to that of Rodolfo and Mimi.
As in June, the minor roles were all well handled. The Colline of Piotr Lempa was thoughtfully dignified, but capable of some slightly awkward high spirits; Daniel Grice was an engagingly animated Schaunard; Howard Kirk reprised his delightfully comically hypocritical Benoit and Michael Clifton-Thomas, Planet of the Apes mask and all, was a boisterous Parpignol with an undercurrent of melancholy. The chorus of WNO, supplemented by a fine array of Parisian-Cardiff urchins, were as highly competent as ever.
Overall this is a very commendable production, if sometimes a little too busy for my taste. It is unlikely to disappoint even the hardened Puccini watcher, even if it can’t claim a place at the very top-table of productions of the opera. It communicates a great deal of the remarkable theatrical power conjured up by the (often quarrelsome) collaboration of Guiseppe Giacosa, Luigi Illica (those two deserve more praise and attention than they have often received for a fine libretto) and Puccini. Anyone who hadn’t seen the opera before would surely leave this production understanding why La Bohème is one of the world’s most popular and widely produced operas.