So, to get away from the world for a short while I went on Saturday to the opening night of the new season by Welsh National Opera at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff – a tale of poverty and doomed love, ending in a tragic death. Well, what did you expect from an Opera, a happy ending?
I suppose the story of La Bohème will be familiar to anyone with even a passing interest in Opera, but I’ll give a quick synopsis anyway. It’s a boy-meets-girl love story, of course. The boy in this case is the poet Rodolfo (Dominick Chenes) and the girl, actually named Lucia but known as Mimi (Marina Costa-Jackson). The setting is Paris around 1830, and the poet and his painter friend Marcello (Gary Griffiths) are starving and freezing, as it is winter and they have no money. Act I is set on Christmas Eve, but the two friends have nothing to eat and nowhere to go. Fortunately, their musician friend Schaunard (Gareth Brynmor John) turns up with money and provisions. After various comings and goings – including the arrival of philosopher Colline (Jihoon Kim) and an untimely visit from the landlord (Howard Kirk) everyone but Rodolfo leaves to spend Christmas Eve out on the town; Rodolfo has to finish a piece for a journal, and promises to join them when he is done. However, he is interrupted by the arrival of Mimi, who lives nearby and whose candle has gone out. It’s love at first sight…
The later stages of Act I are built around Rodolfo’s aria Che Gelida Manina (“your tiny hand is frozen”) and Mimi’s Mi Chiamano Mimi. These beautiful songs follow one another in quick succession, and are then rounded off with a wonderful duet O Soave Fanciulla in a manner guaranteed to melt the stoniest of hearts. And, before you ask, yes I did cry again. Just a little bit. I don’t think anyone noticed.
But it’s not just the ravishing music that makes this passage so special, it’s also Puccini’s gift as a story-teller: after the two arias by Rodolfo and Mimi, the audience knows everything they need to know about these characters. It’s a great example of why I think Puccini is a far greater writer of Opera than, say, Wagner. Puccini understood much better than Wagner how to vary pace and colour without allowing the story to bogged down, and he knew exactly how to use his big tunes to maximum dramatic effect (i.e. without excessive repetition). In fact, La Bohème is in four acts, but its running time is just about 2 hours and 15 minutes, packed full of gorgeous music and compelling drama. It’s a supreme example of Puccini’s artistry as a composer of Opera.
Anyway, back to the plot. Act II finds Rodolfo and Mimi joining in the party started by Marcello and his buddies. There’s a huge contrast here between the dingy garret in which Act I is set, as this is set in the Latin Quarter of gay Paris (with a few drag queens in this production thrown in to make the point). Marcello gets off with the object of his desire, the coquettish Musetta (Lauren Fagan), and all seems well with the world as we go into the interval.
In Act III we find things have changed. Rodolfo’s love for Mimi has soured and, overcome by jealousy and suspicion, he has left her. Clearly unwell, Mimi wanders around looking for Rodolfo and he hears her coughing. They clearly still love each other, but find it difficult to live with each other. If Opera were Facebook they would both have “It’s complicated” on their status.
The last act finds us back in the garret, Rodolfo and Mimi having separated. But Mimi has been wandering the streets in the freezing cold and turns up, clearly gravely ill. Rodolfo’s friends quickly pawn some meagre possessions and Marcello and Musetta rush out to buy medicine and summon a doctor. They return with the medicine but, before the doctor arrives, Mimi dies.
People say that this is a romantic opera but it’s a pretty bleak story when you think about it. The lovers’ happiness is brief and it all ends in despair and death in surroundings of poverty and squalor. That’s what Opera Verismo is all about. In this production Mimi really does looks ill at the end, making the ending all the more heartbreaking.
All the principals were very good. I thought the voice of Dominick Chenes sounded a little thin at the start and was worried that he might have to force it during the big arias, but he warmed up magnificently. Lauren Fagan was a very sassy as the “tart-with-a heart” Musetta. The other person who deserves a particular mention was the bass Jihoon Kim as Colline, who has a superb voice.
And a word for the production. This revival of Annabel Arden’s design – slightly different from the last time I saw it, with a different case, five years ago – managed to bring fresh elements to what is basically a straightforward interpretation of the Opera. The visual effects, such as the animated snow, were clever but not intrusive. There was no attempt to translate the action into a different period or location nor was there an attempt to preach about disease as a metaphor for moral failings. In this respect it’s very faithful to what I think Puccini’s intentions were, i.e. to let the audience make their own mind up about what message they want to take away. The only slight departure I spotted was that in Act I Mimi actually blows her own candle out deliberately in order to get Rodolfo to light it again. Methinks she’s a bit more forward than usual in this production.
This was the first performance of this run of La Bohème. If you love Opera and can get to Cardiff, then do go and see it. It’s very special.
P.S. I was a little amused by the image of the skyline of 19th Century Paris projected in front of the curtains before the show started. It did much to set the atmosphere, but I really don’t think those TV aerials should have been there…