Opera North’s La Petite Boheme

On the face of it, the prospect of the shortest of La Bohème’s four Acts, at just a little over twenty minutes, and in animation at that, would seem of limited appeal.

After all, we miss the youthful Act I, the humour and intricate slapstick of denying the landlord his rent at its centre, and the marvellous love duet of Mimi and Rodolfo at its close. There is not the boisterous coquettishness and good-humoured high spirits of our Bohemians at play, the engaging characteristic of the ebullient Act II. Nor, above all, will we witness the opera’s final cataclysm: Mimi’s death in Act IV, fleeting musical reminiscences of past happiness from the pit plunging the spectacle on stage, all the more, to achingly heart-breaking depths.

Yet it’s difficult to feel short-changed from a fiver.

Once more, Opera North’s creative flair for bringing us outstanding offerings of their most Covid-challenged art form, has triumphed. Though Act III of Puccini’s La Bohème can never make claims to stand alone, it provides an absorbing snapshot of argument and reconciliation, a last episode of people in command of their own destiny, before outrageous fortune intervenes and sweeps away their plans.

We have three memorable arias, sung passionately amongst the two romantic couples. Curiously, Musetta has now become Musetto, but is still a singer and still an item with Marcello, the artist. Tim Nelson‘s self-assured Marcello dispenses much authoritative philosophy about the tentative nature of monogamous love and its proverbial troublesome path. His striking, yet rhapsodic, baritone commands our attention. Katie Bird‘s Mimi, cutting a fragile figure in a vast, bleak landscape, has the voice to match. Her tonal innocent purity is reminiscent of a young Caballé. The Rodolfo of Thomas Atkins, a tenor of secure and captivating timbre, is here confident and resolute, there uncertain and self-contradictory, the familiar conundrum that is a tortured soul juggling the options of a life-changing decision.

In addition to the solo arias from Marcello, Rodolfo and Mimi, there is a brief trio and a more extensive quartet. The chorus sings radiantly. Finally, Mimi’s and Rodolfo’s parting aria, a separation “without rancour”, has an expressive intensity recalling their initial meeting in Act I, to which the orchestra makes unceasing reference as they sing.

Matthew Robins‘ animation, deceptively simple chiaroscuro paperwork punctuated by telling splashes of prime colour, proves remarkably effective at complementing the music, setting the scene and augmenting the unfolding drama. And it is the music, of course, that demands our attention: Puccini’s sublime mature voice, gloriously seductive, romantic catharsis pervading every bar.

Throughout, the Opera North Orchestra is alert and responsive to conductor Matthew Kofi Waldren‘s direction of the opulent score. At all times, there is a natural pace set for the singers, even in the agitated passages portraying the lovers’ arguments, whereby musical phrasing is neither hurried nor exhausting. Particularly fine work comes from the woodwind solos of first desk flute, oboe and clarinet.

For an extra intriguing poser during your viewing, see if you notice a cameo appearance, Hitchcock-style, by the composer himself …..

This is much too good to be spoiled by the kids. Get them to bed and enjoy this without unwelcome distraction.

Sung in Italian with English titles.

Photographs provided by Opera North.

Editor’s Note: My apologies to our writer Tom Tollet, to Opera North and to our readers for being late with publishing this review.

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