First performed in 1896, Puccini’s phenomenally effective tear-jerker depicted ordinary people, rather than the heroic or distinguished characters of “grand” opera, leading everyday lives in the Latin quarter of Paris.
That original “Bohemia” – a district of the imagination – “bordered on the north by cold, on the west by hunger, on the south by love and on the east by hope” – was reborn in the Paris of Appolinaire of the ’20s, Sartre in the ’50s, Camus and the student riots of the ’60s and remains essentially unchanged, somewhere, in every capital city even now.
David McVicar’s production, first seen in 2000, is revived by Leah Hausman and is reset in today, seemingly somewhere just off Oxford Street or near Whitechapel tube – bleak, stark, brick and iron work – and in a graffiti-daubed sink estate.
The extremely effective set design is by Michael Vale, the central features revolving for the three major scene changes – from scruffy bedsit to shopping mall to city boundary checkpoint and then back again.
The fact that we all know what’s coming and have seen it countless times, yet are still left weeping, pays tribute to this wonderful production by Glyndebourne on Tour and above all to the youth and freshness of its singers and their identification with the high spirits and vulnerability of the characters they represent.
Rodolfo is sung by Peter Auty, who gained in presence and power after a somewhat disappointing first meeting and duet with Mimi, sung by Michelle Canniccioni, in Act I, where neither evoked much sense of the physical attraction which draws them together nor the propensity to emotional anguish which was to force them apart yet ultimately reunite them.
In contrast, Majella Cullagh (Violetta in La Traviata on last year’s tour) and David Kempster in the roles of Musetta and Marcello both acted and sang with personality and experience in the scenes in Act II at Café Momus, which focus on the relationship of the couple as opposed to the privacy of the duet between Mimi and Rodolfo in Act I. Cullagh triumphantly sustained the last notes of Quando me’n vo after a magnificent series of melody returns and quarrelling angry shouts from Kempster.
Act II was also a masterpiece of staging on several levels – the crowd of Christmas shoppers, café staff, children and their mothers, the Bohemians and Musetta, a circus troupe and finally a drunken band of Santas Claus created a complex visual and musical tapestry.
Edward Gardner, GOT’s youthful new Music Director conducts, masterfully realises the textural complexity and translucent harmony from the orchestra without falling into the composer’s saccharine traps, and draws the very best from the chorus.
Grant Doyle makes his house debut as Schaunard with Paolo Battaglia as Colline; Robert Davies sings Benoit and Alcindoro. Costumes are by Mikki Engelsbel and Paul Constable’s lighting is revived by Keith Benson.
Cold and hunger are hard to depict in musical and dramatic terms, but the genius of Puccini rests in his evocation of the experience of hope – and above all love – and then to set those emotions free to soar with his music. This production is a superb celebration of that genius.