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]
Marcello – Germán Enrique Alcántara
Rodolfo – Jung Soo Yun
Colline – David Shipley
Schaunard – Mark Nathan
Mimì – Elin Pritchard
Musetta – Aoife Miskelly
Benoît – Howard Kirk
Alcindoro – Alastair Moore
Parpignol – Huw Llywelyn
Customs Sergeant – Martin Lloyd
Customs Official – Laurence Cole
Welsh National Opera Chorus & Orchestra
Annabel Arden – Director
Caroline Chaney – Revival Director
Stephen Brimson Lewis & Nina Dunn – Designers
Philippe Giraudeau – Choreographer
Tim Mitchell – Lighting Designer
Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers
Reviewed: 1 December, 2022
Venue: New Theatre, Oxford, England
The revival of Annabel Arden’s production of La bohème for Welsh National Opera this autumn season neatly coincides with Floris Visser’s new production for Glyndebourne this summer and also on tour in recent months. Where the latter provides a deliberately haunting and effective monochrome austerity within the same set throughout, Arden’s staging offers striking contrasts, both as against that production by being a generally traditional, faithful realisation of the opera in each of scenes, and also within itself. It juxtaposes the claustrophobic decrepitude of everyday reality both in the students’ garret and at the stark tollgate as people come and go across its barrier, with the glowing backdrops and video projections of the wintry sky at dusk or at night and a vista of the Parisian skyline in line drawings, or the rising sun in Act Three at the tollgate, representing a hopeful but tantalising expansiveness about which the students and Mimì can only dream.
No less vivid is the contrast between the tragic, brief story of Rodolfo and Mimì’s love in those cold, impoverished circumstances on the one hand, and the ebullience of the students within that and the scene at Café Momus on the other (with fairground figures and the like) the latter two all exactingly choreographed by Philippe Giraudeau to colourful and witty effect. That carries over into the performance by Pietro Rizzo and the WNO Orchestra, which opens in a lively and excitable fashion with the students’ larks in the garret, and maintains that sparkling character, refusing to settle down at any time that they are around. When Mimì appears, the music slows and becomes reverential, perhaps also hesitant, depicting Rodolfo’s emotions as he confronts the vulnerable young woman. Many points of orchestral colour bring out the Christmas Eve fun at Momus, and the bracing opening to Act Three characterises well the chilly morning. Rizzo dramatises Mimì’s death pointedly with a suitable pause but does not linger too much over the music to make it in any way sentimental. To the end this remains a performance that is well-honed to the stage action.
Elin Pritchard sings Mimì with admirably crisp clarity, successfully maintaining an ideal balance between projecting herself winningly in one of opera’s great soprano roles and expressively representing in music her emaciated, declining state. Jung Soo Yun has a relatively small voice as Rodolfo, but is no less ardent for that, sustaining warm lyrical lines and reaching high notes comfortably even if not all pitches are exact. If he is a touch undemonstrative, that seems to suit Rodolfo’s tentative character. By comparison, Germán Enrique Alcántara exudes an easy, well-rounded vocal swagger as the painter Marcello, and Mark Nathan is a dandyish, playful Shaunard, the musician. Where Aoife Miskelly’s Musetta is fluttery and flighty, David Shipley seems deeply, resonantly stoical or detached as the philosopher Colline at first but comes to sound aptly compassionate by the final Act, as Mimì passes away.
On the surface this is a traditional production, which makes it appealing enough, but closer examination reveals much of human interest that keeps this ubiquitous work alert and fresh.