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La Bohème

by on 1 April 2023

Bohemians Like You

La Bohème

by Giacomo Puccini, libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa

Ellen Kent Productions and the Ukrainian Opera & Ballet Theatre Kyiv at Richmond Theatre, then on tour until 7th May

Review by Andrew Lawston

Puccini’s beloved opera La Bohème comes to Richmond Theatre for one night only, produced and directed by Ellen Kent, and the house is packed.  A production of an Italian opera, set in Paris, and comprising mostly Ukranian, Moldovan, and Romanian artistes, the show feels extremely timely.  And it becomes even more so when you consider that a large section of the plot is driven by people who can’t afford to heat their rooms.

Staged simply but effectively against a painted backdrop of the Paris skyline, this is clearly a production which has been designed for touring, but the set across all four acts is richly detailed and vibrant.  Familiar arias are sung with ferocious energy, as though being performed for the very first time.

Impoverished writer Rodolfo and similarly struggling painter Marcello share a garret in Paris, burning pages to keep warm.  Their fellow Bohemians, philosopher Colline and Schaunard the musician, call round and after some merriment, and bamboozling their landlord to avoid paying overdue rent, they decide to go and dine in the Latin Quarter.  Rodolfo lingers to finish some work and finds himself meeting Mimi, a young and clearly ill seamstress.  The couple fall in love with brisk efficiency, and proceed to have an intense but tempestuous relationship for the next three acts.  Perhaps an early sign of the trouble to come is that Mimi’s hands are famously cold, but instead of gloves or a muff, Rodolfo buys her a pink bonnet.

The entire cast is fantastic throughout, but they are led with confident verve by Sorin Lupu as Rodolfo, and Alyona Kistenyova giving a powerful performance as the angelic and doomed Mimi.  Olexandr Forkushak’s Marcello provides a solid foil to Rodolfo’s flamboyance, and the juxtaposition of his rocky relationship with Olga Perrier’s delightfully vivacious Musetta alongside Rodolfo and Mimi drives much musing on the nature of love and relationships in the third act.

Valeriu Cojocaru’s Colline and Vitalii Cebotari’s Schaunard represent philosophy and music alongside Rodolfo and Marcello’s poetry and painting, to make sure all the arts are covered, and frequently act as comic relief.  The four friends together make for some of the opera’s most entertaining moments, and their absence in act three is keenly felt.

A small dog appears on stage during the scenes in the Latin Quarter, and of course steals the show completely, even among stilt walkers, toy-sellers and chorus members indulging in acrobatics by standing on each other’s shoulders.  A thoroughly naturalistic performer, it was hard to tell which of the dog’s antics were improvised, and which were part of the choreography, but he came close to getting the most enthusiastic round of applause at the end of the show.

The music is supplied by the Orchestra of the Ukrainian Opera and Ballet, conducted by Vasyl Vasylenko, and they play at pace, with passion and energy, and soaring strings.  The orchestra’s passion is more than matched by the singers, and Richmond Theatre’s auditorium is filled with song.

For those who aren’t aware, La Bohème’s ending is a tear-jerker, and it is played with great sensitivity by the whole cast, the curtain falling swiftly over the final tableau.

Most of the audience are on their feet for the curtain calls, and the few that aren’t quickly stand when the company launches into a rousing rendition of the Ukranian national anthem.  Between Mimi’s final moments and this moment of solidarity, there’s barely a dry eye in Richmond Theatre.  La Bohème is on a national tour, and it is well worth catching if and when it comes to a venue near you.

Andrew Lawston, March 2023

Photography courtesy of Ellen Kent Opera

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