Opera North shine in La bohème at The Lowry

Anita Ferguson, a performer from Manchester group, shared this review of Opera North’s production of Giacomo Puccini’s La bohème. Streetwise Opera performers attended a performance at The Lowry in late 2019.

La bohème had a difficult birth. It took three exhausting years for librettists Luigi Illica and Guiseppe Giacosa to finalise the text of La bohème, with Giacomo Puccini. Illica wrote: “I know very well that Puccini is a watch that winds and unwinds easily.” The opera is inspired by “Scènes de la vie de bohème”, by Henri Murger. The story portrays bohemian culture; it is deemed beautiful to be creative and poor. It premiered in Turin in February 1896, with a young Arturo Toscanini conducting. The critics gave an ambivalent response, but audiences received it warmly. In Britain, it was passed over by Covent Garden. I was pleased to learn that it was premiered at The Theatre Royal in Manchester in April 1897. Puccini was unimpressed with our fair city : “I am alone in this terrible place; smoke, rain, cold. You should hear the dogs!”

Rodolfo and his friends follow their artistic passions while they struggle to survive. While the opera does not pack the powerful punch of a dramatic classical opera, it is one of the most accessible and beloved operas. It is a showcase for young performers. Opera North’s production is a revival of Phyllida Lloyd’s acclaimed 1993 work. It is set in early 1960’s Paris.

We begin in a humble attic and it’s Christmas eve. I feel as though I’ve moved in with Withnall or Mr Rigsby in Rising Damp! The four friends are gathered: Rodolfo a poet, Marcello a painter, Colline a philosopher and Schaunard a musician. They are very cold and cannot afford fuel. They conclude that Rodolfo must sacrifice the pages of his play, to keep them warm. There is wonderful chemistry between the young men. Their light-hearted musical chatter will contrast with moments of intense lyricism after Mimi arrives. Their comic timing is excellent, the characters effervescent and animated, the orchestra energetic and restless. Lauren Poulton’s choreography is wonderful as they tumble around the stage like joyful puppies. Rodolfo bids farewell to his play: “My genius play is being performed!” Their landlord arrives in pursuit of the rent, blithely played by Jeremy Peaker. The artists distract him by feigning interest in his past romantic conquests and then pretend outrage in order to throw him out. The friends decide to go out to Café Momus in the Latin Quarter, leaving Rodolfo behind. I smile when there’s the sound of a fall offstage and Rodolfo inquires: “Colline, are you dead?” and he replies: “Not yet”. For now the mood is buoyant.

Mimi arrives, backed by a tremendous swell from the strings, in search of a light for her candle and then loses her keys. Their hands touch as they search and, of course, they fall instantly in love. Rodolfo sings “Che gelida manina”. Lauren Fagan sings “Mi chiamano Mimi”, with the sweet dulcet tones of a winsome lark. I am captivated. One might think that the saying about the hairs on the back of the neck standing up is merely a figure of speech. But that is exactly what happens to me here. Eleazar Rodríguez’s Rodolfo sings with a rich, mellow tone. Their youth and innocence are endearing and I’m moved to tears, already invested in their lives. They are totally absorbed in each other as they snatch these precious moments together. Youth is fleeting.

Act two opens to a carnivalesque Left Bank street scene, full of colour. The children are delightful as they gambol around, animated and rebellious, literally running rings around the adults. The Opera North Youth Company are talented singers and dancers and are having the time of their lives. The Opera North Chorus are on splendid form as usual, bubbling with uplifting energy. Parpignol, on skates with pyrotechnics, adds to the joy. Anthony Ward’s set is ingenious. The lush, opulent carnival scene contrasts starkly with the life endured by our bohemians. The rotating centre stage transforms the railings into the benches of Café Momut. A ravishing Musetta arrives with her wealthy beau, a hapless and put upon Alcindoro. I’m fascinated by her; her movements are gloriously provocative and entrancing, as she sings an outstanding “Quando me’n vo’”. She’s determined to reclaim Marcello, her former lover. Anush Hovhannisyan and Yuriy Yurchuk’s Marcello both have a powerful stage presence and charisma; their voices are sometimes gentle, then strident and full of passion. Their superb duet, “Sono andati”, is an eruption of emotion. There’s laughter as they writhe on the ground; I suspect they’ve made up! Mimi and Rodolfo sing “O soave fanciulla”. Mimi is delicate and restrained, but then unleashes her passion. Rodolfo sings a beautiful phrase: “I am the poet and she is the poetry…The best poetry teaches us to love.” Yes! The famous photograph by Robert Doisneau of lovers kissing is the perfect closing backdrop.

Act three is a dark and desolate scene. Drunken sailors surround a forlorn prostitute, who shivers in the snow, unable to attract customers. Mimi, grown ill and more frail, seeks the help of Marcello. She is unable to cope with Rodolfo’s jealousy. We soon realise that he is masking his real fear that he cannot care for her properly in his poverty. He sings “Love alone is not enough to save her.” Mimi listens. They agree to stay together until spring and she hopes that winter will last forever. They sing the spellbinding “Donde lieta uscì” duet and end with the heartrending words: “Addio, senza rancor” (Goodbye, without resentment). It seems that all of the young people must leave their childish dreams and face the harsh realities of life, and I mourn that loss. Nostalgia pervades La bohème and is captured by Puccini’s recurring musical themes. The conductor, Renato Balsadonna, brings out all the colour and emotion of the music; it is dynamic and flowing and then shifts to profound melancholy.

We return to the lowly garret. Marcello is preoccupied by Musetta and all his paintings become portraits of her. There is a wonderful washing line, hung with the Andy Warhol – style pictures. The other lads return from a party. We have a character dressed as Marilyn Monroe, in her air vent moment from The Seven Year Itch and a rather hirsute angel with a tinsel halo, who boards the motorcycle. Schaunard and Colline have brought food fit for a mock banquet. They are wonderful toddlers, bouncing around and mock-fighting. There’s high comedy as Marilyn forages for the stuffing in her cleavage and lobs it at the others.

The atmosphere changes as Musetta comes in with Mimi, who is now desperately ill. The caring friends gather around Mimi. Musetta sells her earrings to pay for Mimi’s needs and I am moved when she brings a fur muff, to warm Mimi’s tiny frozen hands. I see that behind the coquettish minx is a generous spirit. Colline decides to pawn his beloved coat and bids it a sweet farewell.

The lovers remember happier times. She tries to be strong: “Singing and laughing are the key to love.” The friends are so tender and caring but they are powerless. Musetta kneels and prays, her voice ardent and pleading. The theme of friendship is threaded through this story. Mimi sings: “You are all here with me.” The orchestra is sublime and nuanced; I am not always conscious of it as it dances subtly with the action. Mimi is fading. She sings to Rodolfo “You are my love, my whole life”, and I know that this will be short. I feel wretched and weak; how much more can I bear? She asks if she is still beautiful and sings: “I’m here, my love; always with you.” She dies. I listen to the impelling voice of Rodolfo, raw and ragged, and I’m crying again.

La bohème is a simple tale of love and loss. Surely this is the best kind? There is a poignant ordinariness to the characters; Puccini alluded to “the great sorrows of little souls”. We can empathise and relate to their plight. The singers could have been carried away by the drama, wrenching tears from us all. But their sensitive performances were pure and sincere, and so all the more real. I loved it so much that I went to see it twice! Opera North have reminded me why this is one of the most beloved and relevant of operas. The music is sublime, the vocals affecting and heart-breaking. This was a superb production of La bohème by Opera North. Magnifico!

I’d like to thank Streetwise Opera and Opera North for giving us the chance to witness an unforgettable performance.

Photo: Eleazar Rodriguez as Rodolfo and Lauren Fagan as Mimì © Richard H. Smith

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