United Kingdom Puccini, La Bohème: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Opera North / Andrea Delfs (conductor), Leeds Grand Theatre, Leeds 29.4.2014 (JL)
Mimi: Gabriela Iştoc
Rodolfo: Sébastien Guèze
Musetta: Lorna James
Marcello: Phillip Rhodes
Schaunard : Gavan Ring
Colline: Jimmy Holliday
Benoit: Geoffrey Dolton
Alcindoro: Geoffrey Dolton
Parpigno: Paul Rendall
Director: Phyllida Lloyd
Revival Director: Michael Barker-Caven
Original set & costume designer : Anthony Ward
Original lighting designer: Rick Fisher
Choreographer: Quinny Sacks
Revival choreographer: Maxine Braham
Two decades since its first outing, this is one of those productions so successful it will not go away. It was conceived and first directed for Opera North by Phyllida Lloyd, better known to the world at large as director of two of Britain’s highest ever grossing films, Mama Mia and The Iron Lady. Meryl Streep, who acted in both, has described her director as, “divine, sure and calm”.
Divine may not be the best word to describe Lloyd’s La Bohème. Sure it is but calm it certainly is not. The opera conveys the waywardness, volatility and emotional susceptibility of youth, and the production reflects this. So popular and oft performed is La Bohème that it may be easy to forget how difficult it is to realise the sophisticated creation in pit and on stage. Publisher Giulio Ricordi, who commissioned the writers of the libretto for Puccini in 1892, complained that the composer’s score, completed three and a half years later, contained so much radical switching and extremes of dynamic and tempo that conductors would “lose their heads”. Fortunately it was clear from the fine orchestral playing on this first night revival that conductor Andreas Delfs retained his head securely on his shoulders.
The cast, which Phyllida Lloyd has said should be “young and sexy” is a major strength of this revival, overseen this time by Michael Barker-Craven. There are two sets of performers which enables a run of 16 performances in nearly as many days. If anyone is interested in spotting up-and-coming operatic talent then this is where to come.
On the night, Sébastien Guèze from France played a highly strung, fidgety Rodolfo who makes his approaches to the famously passionate high notes like watching a high jumper’s run-up to a frighteningly high bar, one that he successfully clears (Lloyd has described opera as an “extreme sport”). This was visceral stuff. The object of his attention, Mimi, was sung by Romanian Gabriela Iştoc, a remarkable vocal talent who turned her phrases with mature musicality and treated us to pianissimo high notes that tingled the spine. She looked the part too, dowdily dressed in her relative poverty but with pretty looks shining through. Lorna James as the contrasting character of Musetta scythed her sexy, selfish, destructive way through the drama with suitable panache which made her compassion at the end all the more effective This was another fine voice whose notes ranged from searing to silky.
Some of the cast were probably still in their prams when this production was first unveiled in 1993, yet it has no sense of being dated. The action is transferred from Bohemian Paris of the late 19th century to the cusp of the 1950s and 60s, an age that was to spawn hippies and flower power and in which young people had posters of Che Guevara on their bedroom walls. French impressionist art becomes radically abstract and the artist Marcello, played with suitable youthful enthusiasm by Philip Rhodes, has a fine example on display in the Spartan, freezing attic apartment. Later, his obsession with Musetta is wittily conveyed when he unveils a string of portraits of her in the pop art style of Roy Lichtenstein/Andy Warhol .
A production challenge in the opera is Act II when the action goes public to Christmas celebrations in street and café. Puccini’s music oscillates from big, bustling crowd scenes to individuals within it, rather like a camera zooming in and out. The stage business realises this with some virtuosity, maximising the use of lighting, and a revolving turntable affair takes us in and out of street and cafe. The sense of youth and energy is enhanced by a fleet of children dashing in and off the stage belying W C Fields’ famous dictum, “never work with children”.
The rest of the cast are splendid and the transition from the spirited high jinks of Rodolfo’s friends to their shock at having to witness Mimi’s demise is powerfully conveyed. Her tragic death, the only one of Puccini’s as far as I recall that he composed with restraint – and the better for it – is realised by Gabriela Iştoc with a fading dignity that ensured there were few dry eyes in the house.
This current run will play in Leeds , Salford (Manchester) and Nottingham, with 16 performance into 19 days, partly achieved by employing two casts.