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La Bohème

by on 3 February 2022

Going Dutch

La Bohème

by Giacomo Puccini, libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa

Instant Opera at Normansfield Theatre, Teddington until 30th January

Review by Mark Aspen

By the time Puccini penned the score to La bohème in 1896, impressionism was well established in salon art, and there is something of the impressionist in the opera.  Its impact comes from its atmosphere, a series of mood scenes.  In fact Murger’s novel, on which the opera is based, started life as in a magazine as a series of word-sketches on Bohemian life in Paris, quite literally Scènes de la vie de Bohème.

If it is a mood piece, then clearly it does not need to be set in Paris in 1830.  So I should not have been surprised to discover that Instant Opera’s revival of La bohème is set in Amsterdam in 1973-74.  Nevertheless, not having seen its original 2019 production, I wondered how it would translate to the free-thinking, free-wheeling, free-love world of Amsterdam nearly a century and a half later.

In fact Instant Opera’s concept is cleverly fitted to the history of that idiosyncratic Dutch city, shoehorned in perhaps, but the shoe fits.  1970’s Amsterdam provides a suitably louche setting to rival that of restoration Paris in 1830, even before it became the City of Lights.  However, what was lit up in Amsterdam was some dodgy, but just legalised, smokes in Act IV.  The military tattoo at Café Momus the end of the end of Act II becomes a World Cup qualifying parade, which the chorus clearly enjoyed.  Oh, and talking of lights, the need for Mimi to be looking for a light for her candle in Act I is because of blackouts in Amsterdam due to the fuel shortages in the OPEC oil crisis.  Neat shoehorning (clog-horning?), eh!

Where the Amsterdam setting really works though is in the architecturally accurate backdrops, painted by illustrator Lyn Keay.  The garret is in the De Pijp area, Café Momus on a frozen canal and the toll gate becomes the Nieumarkt, a recognisable landmark.  To avoid any harm to the museum scenery at the Normansfield Theatre, Keay has cleverly painted the scenes onto a freestanding wall of cardboard boxes: what an inspired stroke.  The downside is ten-minute set changes between scenes while these are assembled.  With all that work, it seems a pity that the scenic painting is hidden behind rather cluttered sets.  And, did we need all those tables, always problematic on a set? 

Musically, Instant Opera’s La Bohème is a winner, with lovely voices all well-cast as actors, many of whom we saw in the Grand Opera Gala, Instant Opera’s emergent production after lockdown.  This production, by the way, is the fourth attempt at bringing the revival to stage, all the others being thwarted by various pandemic restrictions.

From the moment we heard Anando Mukerjee’s Rudolfo and Nicola Said’s Mimi when they meet in the dark and chill garret, we knew we were in for a treat.  We get three set pieces in a row.  Rodolfo’s aria Che gelida manina (what a cold little hand), Mimi’s aria Sì, mi chiamano Mimì  (Yes, I am called Mimi) and their duet O soave fanciulla (Oh, sweet girl) form a beautifully engaging sequence.  In just short of fifteen minutes, we find that he is a poet, she an embroiderer, and they have fallen in love.  But what a musically amazing quarter-hour.  Indian tenor Mukerjee has a smooth-as-silk voice.  His singing seems easeful throughout its wide range, but is full of emotion.  From Mimi’s first Buona sera, I was transfixed by Maltese artiste Nicola Said.  Her graceful lyrical soprano voice is clear as a bell, with a certain tenderness, and she balances the sadness and playfulness in Mimi’s character. 

Both Said and Mukerjee have such a warmth and charm, and they seem very much at home on the stage, that one immediately feels for this couple, especially knowing that there is an inevitable downward trajectory to their story.   This inevitability is poignantly underlined when Mimi sings ma quando vien lo sgelo (but when the thaw comes), for we know that the first kiss of April sun and the blossoming of the rose will never be hers.

The relationship of Rodolfo and Mimi, ostensibly innocent, is mirrored in that of Marcello and Musetta, ostensibly not-so-innocent, although these labels require closer scrutiny.  Instant Opera’s Artistic Director, Nicholas George takes on the role of Marcello, in a robust performance, portraying the artist as an impetuous rough diamond.  George’s baritone appropriately informs the character of the prickly yet very human Marcello.  Camilla Jeppeson’s fiery feisty Musetta, fizzes with energy.  Dressed as the scarlet woman, wealthy admirer in tow, Musetta paints herself, perhaps unfairly, as the strumpet.  Her well-known “Musetta’s Waltz”, Quando men vo (Whenever I go …) does not disabuse, as she sings of men longing to see her “hidden charms”.  Jeppeson is clearly relishing the role, and her athletic and lightly decorated soprano enthusiastically brings out the twists and turns of Musetta’s coquettishness.  Of course it is all a ruse to regain, successfully, the attention of her ex-lover Marcello.  The loser in this game is Alcindoro, her sugar daddy, played by Douglas Somers-Lee, who is left to pick up the Café Momus tab.

This rumbustious Christmas Eve scene is where the chorus can let their hair down, and Instant Opera’s dozen-strong chorus, supplemented by a lively trio of children, put their all into having a good time, both as characters and performers.   Meanwhile an acting crew, led by a laconic Daniel Wain, busy themselves waiting at (and moving around) the ubiquitous tables, looking suitably pissed-off at their unsocial hours and unruly clientele.

Prime amongst the unruly clientele are Rodolfo’s flatmates cum working companions cum drinking partners.  These are the Bohemians, and a laddish lot they are.  (Incidentally, Puccini based these characters on his own real-life companions from his student days at the Conservatorio di Milano.)  Already in Act I we have seen them gulling their landlord of his rightful rent, indignantly throwing him out as a lecher after his ill-advised boasting, over a few drinks, of his extra-marital affairs.  The versatile bass Douglas Somers-Lee plays Benoît, the hapless landlord, with just sufficient hints at miserliness that we don’t feel too bad on his behalf.  He looks the part too in his moth-eaten woolly mittens.

Completing the quartet of Rodolfo’s chums are Brazilian baritone, Andrè Andrade, who plays the role of the musician Schaunard, while Irish bass Conall O’Neill takes up role of the philosopher Colline. Schaunard is the only one who brings anything by way of sustenance to the party, or money.  (The mock homage paid to the newly installed King Louis Phillipe is substituted in Instant Opera’s version to the soon to abdicate Queen Julianna.)  They do not even bother to listen to his convoluted story about how he earnt the money, playing his violin (electric guitar?) for an English gentleman’s dying parrot, but his later offering of bread and a herring results in a mock duel  (here with the rather schoolboyish weapon of flicked towels rather than with the herring).  Andrade acts Schaunard as taking everything in his stride, but bedecked in exotic millinery, his handling of the lively score points up the role for Schaunard in bringing comedic levity to the quartet.   If Schaunard brings the levity, it is Colline who brings the gravity with his grounded bookishness.  However, almost at the end of the opera Colline has the poignant, but under-feted, arietta, Vecchia zimarra (ancient coat), when he decides to sell his treasured, and needed, overcoat to raise money for medicines for the dying Mimi.  O’Neill’s performance of this gem is stupendous. Demonstrating the integrity of his range, the rallentando in the line ora che i giorni lieti, fuggîr, ti dico … addio (now that the happy days have past, I say to you … farewell), with all those “I” sounds accompanied by a pizzicato cello, gives O’Neill an opportunity to ascend the scale, musically and emotionally.  It is truly touching.

Talking of that cello, the Instant Opera Orchestra, under the baton of Musical Director, Lewis Gaston is on top form.  Everyone of thirty-two strong orchestra are totally engaged, and Gaston works in complete harmony with all involved to deliver a well-paced performance.

We are still soaking our handkerchiefs with Colline.  Puccini does over-sentimentalise.  But, my, does it pack a punch!  And there’s the tragic ending yet to come, bathed in red light.  Lighting designer, Jack Druett has kept most scenes rather dark, perhaps so we can hide those soaked handkerchiefs, but better to show off specials like the stove that burns masterpieces to keep warm.  Like the eponymous Bohemians and Mimi, we too are now in a heat-or-eat world, so we are brought bang up to date.

One little niggle, I didn’t realise there were surtitles until the interval, when I discovered that these were being projected on the bottom of a square screen, not on the top where they could be seen.  That’s alright if you are familiar with the opera but some of the audience may have been a bit left behind.

Instant Opera’s version of La bohème does bring out two elements.  Firstly, how much the green-eyed monster drives the plot for both Rodolfo with Mimi, and Marcello with Musetta; and secondly just how innocent is Mimi.  Having just met, Rodolfo insinuates they stay together in the garret to keep warm.  Then, having decided to go to the bash at Café Momus, he asks suggestively E al ritorno? (And when we get back?).  For Mimi’s reply the libretto says “maliziosa” (mischievously).  It is ambiguous …Curioso!

Still, maybe in an impressionist piece, this is just my impression.

Mark Aspen, January 2022

Photography by Marc Haegermann, Keith Jenkins and Jonathan Lo

2 Comments
  1. celiabard permalink

    A very thorough review of what I thought was an excellent production. I could so easily have sat through it again, the performances and whole production was spell binding.

  2. Thank you celiabard. We will certainly try to revive our La bohème again. In the meantime please look out for details of our new production Lucia di Lammermoor at Normansfield Theatre on 14-16 October 2022 at http://www.instantopera.co.uk

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