La Bohème

Illica, Giacosa & Puccini

Opera North

The Lowry, Salford

12-15 November, 2019: 2hr 15min

Café society: Stuart Laing as toy seller Parpignol and other cast members in Opera North's La Bohème. All pictures: Richard H Smith

Phyllida Lloyd’s production of La Bohème for Opera North is over 26 years old but still feels young. And for audiences it still has the ability to capture – as the opera is designed to – the experience of youthful love and separation, its ecstasy and its heartbreak.

It's set in the 1950s or early 1960s, rather than the 19th century. But in some respects it takes its cue from the set of stories Puccini and his collaborators used as their source material, Henry Murger’s Scènes de la Vie de Bohème. What we see are literally scenes – tableaux – with intervening narrative left to our imagination. Boy meets girl… there’s some backstory involving his friends and the love life of one in particular, it all goes sour, and there’s a tragic death.

As part of their updating, Phyllida Lloyd and designer Anthony Ward took inspiration from the real romantic fiction of their new time-setting: film. It fits both concepts that everything’s framed by a kind of cinema screen-edge, and as the first act merges to the second there’s the equivalent of a cinematic cut to close-up, created through lighting and a gauze on which we see a projected still of a kiss.

This happens to cover a scene-change behind, but the visual theme continues with another ‘cut’ to a projected backdrop, for the story to continue in the street and the café. Then as the brassy Musetta takes over with her motto song, Quando m’en vo, everything changes again and we’re in comedyland. At least that was how it came over this time – I think on previous outings there’s been more ambiguity, just as there has sometimes been more intrigue in the quality of the relationship between Marcello and Musetta, as it comes out in act three.

But ultimately La Bohème is always about the two main characters, Rodolfo and Mimì, the poet and the consumptive paper flower-seller.

This revival is double-cast for them anyway, so I saw only one performer in each role (and one Musetta). But Lauren Fagan’s Mimì made the show: she has a glorious, young voice and sang angelically throughout. Maybe she seemed a bit more fit and well at the outset for someone who’s already supposed to faint from her sickness, but by the end she was wonderful.

Eleazar Rodriguez, a young tenor with the top C he displayed for us at the end of O soave fanciulla, is not the most incisive singer in the world but entered into his part skilfully. Between them, and with powerful guidance from conductor Renato Balsadonna, whose direction was never less than idiomatic and drew beautiful playing from the orchestra, they managed to persuade me this time that the breaking-up-is-hard-to-do emotions of act three are really the most glorious part of the entire opera.

The other main performers – all young singers for the youthful characters – were never less than good, while in some ways the acting achievement of the night was that of Jeremy Peaker in the twin roles (as usual in this piece) of the lecherous landlord Benoît and the witless sugar-daddy Alcindoro.

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