Puccini's La bohème is an opera wherein
emotions are lived to the full. This goes just as much for the fun of
the Bohemians at the beginning of Act IV as it does for the ensuing
death of Mimi. The music must have freedom to surge as the composer
intended, which makes the decision to stage it in the restricted space
of the Queen Elizabeth Hall all the more puzzling. There is no orchestra
pit, so the players were situated at the back of the stage, with the
sets in front of them. Needless to say, this 'orchestra' was actually
a Puccinian chamber ensemble: string lines could hardly soar and neither
could there be any significant lushness of texture. Strings, in fact,
were woefully inadequate in Act IV in conveying the tragic atmosphere,
failing to convey the import of the small matter of the heroine's demise.
Tuning also needs to be tight, and, to pick but one
example, wind tuning at the beginning of Act III was particularly wayward.
What actually saved the day to some extent was conductor Roderick Brydon's
pacing of the work, especially in the lighter passages. Indeed, the
strength of this production lay in the frivolous moments.
Scenery was basic but (generally) effective. Various
Parisian posters adorned both sides of the stage in Act I, enclosing
a barely furnished room. The trio of Marcello (Richard Morris), Rodolfo
(Timothy Evans-Jones) and Colline (Richard Robson) made the best they
could of the opening. Evans-Jones established his Rodolfo as slightly
edgy of tone and on the weak side. Anne Williams-King, as Mimi, was
more convincing visually than vocally. She looked frail and sickly,
but her voice carried little emotion and her lower register was weak.
The orchestra's tuning marred Puccini's luminous chords as the couple
fell in love.
The staging of Act II, set at the Café Momus,
was thankfully not too busy. Eldrydd Cynan Jones showed herself to have
a clean, well-focussed voice for the part of Musetta and here Marcello
was more characterful. Andrew Gallacher, as Alcindoro, was amusingly
depicted as a sort of commedia dell'arte Peter Stringfellow and produced
Act III is set on the outskirts of Paris. The snow-laden
scene was depicted by a white sheet. Marcello and Musetta unfortunately
argued in the most un-Italian fashion possible (memories of Gilbert
and Sullivan sprang unstoppably to mind). By the time
of Mimi's death in Act IV, emotions were firmly established
on the surface of the music (it was also unfortunate to hear Rodolfo
drowned by such a small band of players).
A disappointing evening, unfortunately. Credit must
go to director Andrew Gallacher (also the Alcindoro) for making a go
of the limited space available, but in the final analysis this remained
an approximation of Puccini's masterpiece.