La boheme

La boheme

Julia Gasper / Opera / Oxford / Review / Theatre

La Bohème: Ellen Kent Opera at New Theatre Oxford.

A review by Julia Gasper

La Bohème is one of the two Puccini operas featured in the Ellen Kent Company’s 2020 Tour. It is gloriously romantic, which makes it much needed in this time and place right now. The ideal and tragic love between Rodolfo and Mimi is set against a backround of comedy, and the production presents this with exuberance, but it is comedy that always has a dark undertone, creating highs and lows of a roller-coaster kind.

When we meet Rodolfo, the struggling young writer (sung in this production by Vitalii Liskovetskyi, tenor) he is living in a garret with a group of other artistic friends all equally penniless. Marcello, the painter (Iurie Gisca, baritone, clearly very senior to Rodolfo) Shaunard, a musician (Vitalii Cebotari) and Colline, a philosopher (Vadim Cernovettky). The garret has no walls in this set, just a bust of Napoleon and a panoramic view of Paris as it was in the nineteenth century – and what a fabulous view it is.

La Bohème
La Bohème

Despite their high spirits there is already tragedy in the opening scene when Rodolfo is forced to burn the manuscript he is writing to keep warm. He cannot afford fuel for the stove and when Shaunard and Colline arrive with some food it is Rodolfo’s and Marcello’s only chance of a meal that day. Then when the landlord (Eugeniu Ganea) arrives to demand the rent they have no no money to give him. Rodolfo is alone, writing, when Mimi, the girl from upstairs, come to ask him to light her candle. Clearly, she cannot afford matches. He tells her he is a writer: “In blissful poverty I squander rhymes and words like a rich man…”

Alyona Kistenyova as Mimi is the undoubted star of this production. She is celebrated and has previously taken the lead roles in Ellen Kent productions of La Traviata and Rigoletto. Tonight’s performance lived up to all we have come to expect from her – a rich, expressive voice, and a chameleonic acting talent. Mimi earns her living by embroidering flowers on clothes for rich women, and she too is a sort of artist. She confesses, “I like things of such sweet charm, They speak of love and Spring.” The love between her and Rodolfo is a meeting of true minds. He sings, “In you I see the dream I want to dream forever.” As they exit, we are supposed to hear their last notes fading away offstage.” In last night’s performance, the effect was not quite perfect, and they need to refine it.

La Bohème
La Bohème

Even in Act 2 scene 1 what appears to be pure comedy has a dark undertone. The four friends visit a café in the summer, with Mimi, and Marcello is distracted by the appearance of his ex-girlfriend Musetta (sung by soprano Maria Tonina). She has left Marcello for a rich protector because she cannot bear to live in penury, and now she has fine clothes but she can’t stop her head swivelling to look at Marcello all the time. The contrast between Mimi, the shy and romantic girl whom Rodolfo would love to be able to marry, and the coquettish Musetta, is perhaps a little bit exaggerated in this production. Of course Mimi needs to be modest and correct, Musetta sexy and confident, but Musetta’s dress (made entirely of feather boas) and her whole get-up is a bit over the top, more like a drag queen than a real woman. Musetta shows where her heart truly lies by tricking her rich older lover into paying everybody’s bills. The crowded square is full of colourful characters from French impressionist paintings – stal- holders, browsers, clowns, children playing and street musicians. In the background the Eiffel Tower looms loftily.

In Act Three, winter has returned and Mimi is dying of consumption. Rodolfo is wracked by guilt as well as grief, telling Marcello “I am the cause of her fatal illness”. She chose to remain with him despite having a richer admirer. “Love is not enough to call her back to life.” Musetta proves she has a heart of gold by selling her jewellry to buy medecines and necessities but it is too late. Rodolfo and Mimi nestle together one last time reminiscing about their first meeting and their blissful summer together. “Goodbye to those lovely mornings, when we awoke together”. Despite all the best efforts of the friends, she slips away into death.

The production takes hints from Renoir and Chagall, and never lets us forget we are in Paris, which is quite right really. If Paris had a DNA then La Bohème would be part of it. The orchestra and conductor (Valeriu Cucharschi) do full justice to Puccini’s inspired score. You can see this production in many other venues such as Wolverhampton, Birmingham, Reading, Brighton, Hastings etc as the tour continues during February, March and April.

                                                    Julia Gasper.

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