Glyndebourne Tour 2022 – Puccini La bohème – Luis Gomes, Alexandra Grigoras, Adam Marsden; directed by Floris Visser; conducted by Rory Macdonald

La bohème – opera in four Acts to a libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa & Luigi Illica after Henri Murger’s novel Scènes de la vie bohème [sung in Italian with English surtitles]

Rodolfo – Luis Gomes
Marcello – Adam Marsden
Colline – William Thomas
Schaunard – Luvuyo Mbundu
Benoît/Alcindoro – Darren Jeffery
Mimì – Alexandra Grigoras
Death/Parpignol – Peter Van Hulle
Musetta – Mariam Battistelli
Customs Officer – Andrew Davies
Police Sergeant – John Mackenzie-Lavansch

Glyndebourne Chorus, Glyndebourne Youth Opera Chorus & Trinity School Chorus

Glyndebourne Tour Orchestra
Rory Macdonald

Floris Visser – Director
Simon Iorio – Revival Director
Dieuweke Van Reij – Set Designer
Jon Morrell – Costume Designer
Pim Veulings – Choreographer
Alex Brok – Lighting Designer
Klaus Bertisch – Dramaturg

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 5 November, 2022
Venue: Milton Keynes Theatre, Buckinghamshire, England

As the country slides into a recession (forecast to be the longest since records began) coming on top of the ‘cost of living’ crisis, Floris Visser’s new production of La bohème – first seen in Sussex during the summer festival, and now being taken on tour – seems an apt comment upon the contemporary economic situation. Visser’s austere vision of the work is inspired by the setting of an otherwise empty Parisian street in Sabine Weiss’s photograph Man Running, except that in the production it is claustrophobically hemmed in on either side by uncompromisingly stark, prison-like concrete walls. The entire action takes place there, open air, including the first and last Acts – normally set in the students’ bare garret, and so inviting us to draw the inference that their poverty has now reduced them to living on the street (where the arts are also liable to end up if the Tories continue with their remorseless cuts to an industry in which post-Brexit UK can still just about boast of an international prestige).

Costumes suggest a period around the 1930s – indeed it might as well be the Great Depression (with which our present economic situation is already being compared) – and the unremitting black and white colours, with all shades of grey in between, also make the drama seem to unfold like a film before the widespread appearance of colour on the cinema screen. Each Act, however, makes a single point of focus upon some object of colour – the first is Marcello’s painting of the Red Sea, succeeded by a bunch of red balloons (brought on by Parpignol) – that hue too alarming to evoke anything of the April sunshine of which Mimì speaks so hopefully, but rather (presumably) hints at the bloody cough of her tuberculoid condition. In Act Four that colour is diluted poignantly in the pink flowers festooned in the piled-up chairs and tables to one side, such a foretaste of spring coming too late as Mimì lies dying, as also the brief incursion of springtime sunshine across the street from an aperture in the wall during Act Three. Adding to the symbolism, a becloaked, grey-haired man shadows Mimì throughout, like death, at a distance, until the end when she is escorted down the street, also evoking so many such filmic images of figures walking away into the indeterminate or the infinite – tragically inverting a clichéd walking-into-the-sunset happy ending; but also perhaps referring to the older Germanic trope of Death and the Maiden (famously invoked by Schubert). 

An excellent cast brings much vocal and human warmth amidst the bleakness of their surroundings. The three principals were all ill on this occasion, and the role of Rodolfo doubly beset in that the understudy, Rhys Batt, replacing Bekhzod Davronov, also could not sing owing to a sore throat, but acted the part. Luis Gomes sang from the side, a magnificent replacement on account of his richly Italianate tone, convincingly capturing the full range of the character’s music, not least his soaring passion, without strain. Alexandra Grigoras sang Mimì instead of Gabriella Reyes, tender and delicate throughout in keeping with her fragile condition but sustaining a flourishing musical lyricism. Adam Marsden, standing in for Luthando Quave, gave voice to a sympathetic rendering of Marcello, despite his frustrations.

Mariam Battistelli is a splendidly flirtatious Musetta, Marcello’s former girlfriend, as memorable in performance for her squealy laugh as for her agile musical charm, expressing her whimsical but ultimately good-hearted nature as she returns to the garret to witness Mimì’s death.  As the philosopher Colline, William Thomas renders the part with an appropriate earnest, musical woodenness to evoke his introspections, contrasting well with Luvuyo Mbundu’s endearingly capricious Schaunard. Darren Jeffery demonstrates admirable versatility, first as the blustering Benoît as he claims arrears of rent from the students, and later as the laconic, browbeaten Alcindoro, Musetta’s latest love interest. Peter Van Hulle patiently and inscrutably embodies the figure of death, as he saunters across the stage.

Rory Macdonald takes a fairly broad view of the score, allowing many musical points to linger and have their full effect – Puccini’s almost Wagnerian manner in recalling and developing particular themes and motifs coming out particularly well – but also succeeds in creating sufficient tension over wider passages. Musical fluency on the part of orchestra, singers, and chorus, then, stand out strikingly against Visser’s effective and alienating pared down interpretation of the drama on stage, surely making jaded audiences sit up afresh and be moved by this most ubiquitous of operas.

Further performances at various venues to November 26

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