Puccini’s La Bohème at Leeds Grand Theatre

This is a winter’s tale which is full of warmth.  Charles Eager attended the first in a run of Leeds performances.

Thanks to Opera North, Puccini is fast becoming one of my favourite composers. Within the past two years we have had superb versions of Madama ButterflyTosca and Gianni Schicchi, and now this gorgeous revival of Phyllida Lloyd’s 2014 production of La Bohème. I have come away from all of them amazed with the wit and pathos in Puccini’s musical and theatrical writing, his gorgeous orchestration, the seemingly endless invention of melodies, and his amazing ability to dramatise through music.

And of course these things don’t come off without a combination of stellar musical performers and a richly imaginative production. When they do Puccini, Opera North always seem to succeed in both respects, which really suggests their love and respect for the composer, which is great to see.

Eleazar Rodriguez as Rodolfo and Lauren Fagan as Mimì

The story, for those who aren’t familiar, is pretty thin, and not the best feature of the opera. A set of bohemians occupy a dreary apartment and live in poverty for the sake of their art. The male lead, the poet Rodolfo (played tonight by Eleazar Rodriguez; some performances played by Thomas Atkins), one day meets the beautiful Lucia, whose name means ‘light’, but who for the rest of the opera goes by the nickname Mimì (wonderfully played by Lauren Fagan; Katie Bird in some performances).

As Rodolfo puts it later in the opera, he is the poet, she is poetry itself (‘son io il poeta, essa la poesia‘); it is, at first, a fairytale romance.  Lauren Fagan’s charming Mimì sings beautifully and poetically of her tiny room at the top of the apartment building which looks over the rooftops and of how the first light of day is hers (‘il primo sole è il mio‘). This was all wonderful, and would have been even better were it not for a lady trying to record the famous O soave fanciulla on her phone, which was distracting.

That’s Act I, and what a fine Act it is, even if the first half of it is concerned with a bit of comical filler involving their landlord, which does not advance the plot.  Act II is a largely comic piece, with delightful small roles (my favourite being the children’s chorus), which features the introduction of the glamorous Musetta (Anush Hovhannisyan; Samantha Carke in some performances), who plays a largely comic role, though she is allowed a beautiful prayer for Mimì in the more serious fourth Act.

Acts III and IV are more tragic in tone: the relationship between Rodolfo and Mimì goes through some rough patches, and then the extremely rough patch of Mimì’s early death from tuberculosis. (Don’t worry; it’s not a spoiler: you can see it coming a mile off.) The fourth Act especially risked at times turning into mere melodrama, but overall it came off and was very affecting, even if occasionally one had to ignore the acting and just listen to the power of Puccini’s musical storytelling.

Yuriy Yurchuk as Marcello, Eleazar Rodriguez as Rodolfo, Henry Neill as Schaunard and Emyr Wyn Jones as Colline

There is an exception, however: this is Lauren Fagan as Mimì. Not only is her performance totally charming and sung with matchless beauty; additionally, she is, unlike most other opera singers, actually a good, convincing actress, too. No matter what else happens on stage, one is always with Mimì.  Fagan’s co-star, Eleazar Rodriguez (Rodolfo) is likewise very affecting and believable. Together, they make a charming couple. The rest of the cast were strong in their comic roles, but in the more demanding, serious moments, they—partly by virtue of the production’s choices—still seemed somewhat clownish. However, the last tableau—in which all the ancillary characters face away, their heads downturned in sorrow, from the central spectacle of Rodolfo giving Mimì a last cuddle—is beautifully acted precisely for doing so little, and allowing the quality of the musical-dramatic writing to do the work.

The problems in taking the serious parts of the production seriously were partly owing to Anthony Ward’s costumes. There were some very fine costumes in this, to be certain, but Eleazar Rodriguez’ heroic and sympathetic Rodolfo could have looked so much better were he not wearing a fleece-and-jeans combo—which makes him look more like my Dad on a relaxed Saturday than he does some sort of bohemian poet. Likewise, although Lauren Fagan rises above it with her amazing performance, it is mildly irritating that she looks so much like Sarah Silverman for most of the opera.  I just remain thankful that she didn’t sound like Sarah Silverman.

Phyllida Lloyd says in an interview with Stuart Leeks in the (as always) excellent programme, that she and Anthony Ward wanted the production to feel like it could be taken from our lives, since it is about such a universal experience.  I understand this, but it seems like a mistaken starting point.  I can relate to King Lear, but I have never been King of Ancient Britain.  Anyway, in the end, they don’t achieve the desired effect, because I am mostly distracted and mildly irritated by the attempts to make it relatable by means of this 50s setting full of Warholian artwork—which I never (Deo gratias) experienced.

Anush Hovhannisyan as Musetta with the cast of La Bohème

Ward’s set design was, however, another story.  There were three wonderful sets in this production. Acts I and IV both took place in the bohemians’ apartment, which looked the part and which was richly furnished with evidence of their artistic richness and pecuniary poverty. It was a particularly lovely conclusion to Act I when a backdrop representing the night sky—complete with a (projected?) full moon—descended behind Mimì and Rodolfo during their love duet. Act II, which as mentioned is comic, takes place in the Latin Quarter in a lovely, evocative café set. Act III takes place effectively in two locations: downstage a street, and upstage a bar. The impression is created through a combination of beautiful set design and lighting (Richard Moore; Rick Setter in original production).

All in all, a beautiful production, sung and acted by a great cast. I already want to see it again, both with this cast and the alternate. I better find some employment.

Many thanks to Opera North and everyone involved for this triumphant production!

La Bohème continues in Leeds on 16, 18, 22, 23, 24 and 26 October.  For more information, visit here.

All photographs by Richard H Smith.  Feature photograph is Stuart Laing as Parpignol with the cast of La Bohème.


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