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S & H Opera Review

Puccini La bohème. Soloists, London City Opera Orchestra/Roderick Brydon. QEH, December 30th, 2002 (CC).

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 good comedy.

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.

Colin Clarke


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