Puccini: La Bohème

Opera Holland Park

Kensington, London, 28 June 2009 3.5 stars

Opera Holland ParkStereotypically, outdoors summer Operas are a bit like summer affairs: pleasant, good fun and unlikely to leave a mark, especially when the bill features such a world-class charmer as La Bohème.

But Opera Holland Park’s production of La Bohème was, if not flawless, graced with vocal performances of less-than-stereotypical depth and drive.

Let us start with general considerations. Stage designing must have been no ordinary feat, mostly because of the stage’s oblong shape. But designer Colin Richmond faced the challenge head-on by accentuating, rather than obliterating, the peculiar space at hand by having Marcello’s canvas swell up to the size of a fresco and stretching for the entire length of the stage across a large wooden scaffold.

The canvas itself looks as though someone has been slaughtered on it: a large, blood-red stain traces its entire length. This is not only Marcello’s somewhat conceptual take on his subject (the Red Sea) but, more likely, a magnified and gruesome bit of foreshadowing (cue: Mimi’s blood-flecked handkerchief).

This visually arresting incipit has the possible side-effect of shifting the focus onto Marcello —who, accessing the canvas from a small ramp, is the focus of the opening scene—and away from Rodolfo, who is more discreetly hunched over his papers on the centre-right of the stage. This is not helped by the fact that Grant Doyle’s Marcello has charisma to match his oversized canvas. 

But all is well: for these two performers are as well matched musically as their on-stage personalities. Doyle’s agile, speech inflected (but still very much sung) Marcello is complemented by Aldo di Toro‘s strong, quivering tone—one of the finest I have heard in a while. And as soon as the two start bantering, their on-stage chemistry is too absorbing for us to decide, or care who the main character is.

A slight problem arises with the orchestra, and this is one that unfortunately will not be completely solved throughout the opera: their playing tends to drown out the voices in more than one occasion, and while Di Toro’s voice can survive the orchestra’s intromission, Marcello’s sarcastic references to Musetta’s icy heart are overtaken by the orchestra, and the fault is not his.

Yet even when the projection of the singer’s voice is not a problem (as with Rodolfo’s entry), the orchestra seemed at times to be urging the singers on, and conductor Robert Dean could have made more out of a few moments of sparkle (the perky pizzicati that underpin Rodolfo’s daydreaming about the rooftops of Paris, and the occasional sprinklings of glockenspiel ).

Njabulo Madlala’s Schaunard had a few problems of projection and his Italian diction could improve. But what most puzzled me was his 1940’s gangster outfit.  I was particularly bemused by his plush coat (complete with fur collar): in act 4 I half expected him, rather than Colline (brilliantly sung by Tim Mirfin from beginning to end) to sell over his coat. Then again, I suppose Schaunard’s hardly classified as a ‘vecchia zimarra’. But none of this is enough to distract us from the fun of this scene, which goes into a delightful escalation thanks to the high-quality performances of the men on-stage. The tableau is crowned by their hilarious circumvention of their elderly landlord Benoit (a sparkling caricature by Eric Roberts).

Mimi’s appearance was something of an anticlimax. It is not that Linda Richardson didn’t do everything by the book. My one criticism would be that  Richardson has a tendency to vibrato that can distort Mimi’s comely, simple melodies, but this rectifies itself as the opera progresses. 

A further quibble, raised by Mimi’s outfit, is the historical context (or lack thereof) of this production. The nondescript ragged clothing of Marcello and Rodolfo is starkly in contrast with Schaunard’s mob-squad attire, and with Mimi’s outfit, which points to an indefinite time in the first half of the 20th century.
Yet costume is the least of Mimi’s problems. The real problem is that Mimi’s character, and the beginning of her love-affair with Rodolfo, is just so dramatically improbable (one minute she is introducing herself to her neighbour, the next she’s swearing eternal love to him), that only an interpretation able to convey her sweet reticence with an out-of-bounds emotional charge could make her unlikely character live up to the formidable music Puccini graces her with.

Di Toro, however, gives his Rodolfo such a starry-eyed ardour, perfect pitching and elegant phrasing as to earn several rounds of mid-act applause (and not just for ‘che gelida manina’). The first kiss between the two new lovers is craftily used as a pedal point for the change of scenery into Momus: as the love-birds kiss, crowds flood into the stage, and Marcello’s canvas is pulled off the scaffolding to reveal the sign MOMUS mounted behind it (this same sign will be lighted letter by letter, in time with the music, in just a few seconds).
There are times when the managing of the on-stage crowd in Act 2 feels uncomfortable. The stage may be wide, but it is also narrow, which means that the crowds are mostly squashed into the proscenium, particularly in the finale when everyone faces the crowd, stomping for emphasis, as in a Broadway musical.  But all this is eclipsed when Hye-Youn Lee’s showstopper of a Musetta comes on stage.  Initially sounding a little shrill and angular, she soon displays a full bodied voice and attitude to match, if a slight lack of polish at times. 
Now that Musetta has entered the plot, we are in for a real treat with the Act 3 quartet (Rodolfo and Mimi sadly reminiscing happier times on the left, Musetta and Marcello heatedly arguing on the right), vocally topped by Rodolfo and Musetta, and brilliantly executed both vocally and from the pit. Again, Richardson’s performance is not a match to Di Toro’s impassioned song, and she comes across as sorely passive in what should be the most heart-rending of reunions.

Act 4, however, elicits the best out of every performer: the banter is back between the heart-broken, but proud Rodolfo and Marcello, duly joined by Schaunard and Colline, and the dramatic blow of Mimi’s return to her former love-nest is truly effective, and Richardson and Di Toro’s final duet is their best one in the opera, with Richardson squeezing out unprecedented depth of feeling from her ailing Mimi. 

Last night’s La Bohème was not a flawless performance, and while the romance between Rodolfo and Mimi did not seem to ever fully take centre-stage, this is not, after all, a bad thing. The description of the enchanted microcosm inhabited by the characters on stage (one of restricted financial means but also solidarity, fun, and close friendship) brought the focus back to the titular bohème and thus, paradoxically, away from the more stereotypical aspects of this much-loved work.

By Delia Casadei

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