A broad, two-way-mirrored board dominates the stage. It stands, at something close to a forty-five degree angle, with a window in its centre, through which moonlight floats down into the garret occupied by the poet Rodolfo (David Butt Philip) and his friend the painter Marcello (Grant Doyle). Aside from this, there are a few boxes, and the basket of a hot air balloon. The world of La Bohème is mostly one of bareness and poverty, of manuscripts of plays burned act by act to keep their writers warm, of earning money by strange, or else banal, means. Schaunard (Njabulo Madlala) is approached by an English gentleman who wants him to play the violin until his parrot dies; Marcello, later on, works as a sign painter. The opera begins and ends in a garret, and the finale is tragic.
Yet along the way there are bursts of vibrancy, and threaded throughout is a ribbon of romance, both in the sense of love and the sense of idealism. The freezing climate has the advantage of extinguishing the candle of Mimi, who comes to Rodolfo’s room asking for a light. In the darkness, amid the search for – and in Rodolfo’s case, the pocketing of – Mimi’s lost key, they fall in love, and are at the last bathed in the lunar glow. Although trouble comes later, as it does also for Marcello and his lover Musetta, the sonic thermals on which the voices of Butt Philip and Ilona Domnich glide in this section are breath-taking.
Act Two, set in the Quartier Latin, brings a new dynamism. Street sellers loudly announce their wares, a children’s chorus (made up of local school pupils, who tonight performed admirably with the professional cast and orchestra for the first time) gathers around Pa’Guignol, the puppeteer, and the bohemians are in the Café Momus, dining out on a rare windfall. Then Musetta (Sky Ingram), clad in formidable red, appears. This was certainly one of the highlights; her – ultimately successful – attempts to capture Marcello’s attention, her sly sending away of her government minister admirer Alcindoro (Andrew Glover), to whose account she indifferently charges hers and the rest of the bohemians’ café bills, were all delivered with magnificence. And later, towards the end, a compassionate side was also shown, as she brings the dying Mimi to Rodolfo’s garret, and sells her earrings to buy her medicine and the attention of a doctor.
Throughout, the orchestra, conducted by Michael Rosewell, like an unseen and musically gifted Neptune, kept control of the waves on which the plot rose and fell, with the crescendos being felt as powerfully momentous events. The second act was another highlight here, too, for both singers and musicians, as the chorus of voices following different lines mingled and mounted into a wonderfully full auditory scene to match the visual one. Other features of the performance too, such as Dominic J. Walsh’s puppet work, Adam Player’s caricature-like portrayal of the landlord Benoît, and the lighting and set design with mirrors and artificial snow, are worthy of mention.
This could be because the general atmosphere and setting is what has the strongest effect, rather than the romance which I suppose to be the intended focus. Perhaps my argument here is with Puccini and his librettists Illica and Giacosa, or even Henri Murger, whose Scenes de la vie de Bohème was the inspiration for the opera, but scenes such as the one described in Act Two, or the other various touches of humour and sheer, wild vitality, were more affecting and moving – albeit obviously in a different way – than the love story between Rodolfo and Mimi. The initial spark between them produced a beautiful moment in the music and the drama in Act One, but by the end, the interest seemed to have shifted from Mimi and the anguished Rodolfo slumped at her bedside, to the other characters stood around the stage, as if in a tableau. Was Musetta, by removing her earrings, showing that she might renounce her rich lover, and return to Marcello? What about Colline (Matthew Stiff), who, although ready to pawn his old coat to help Mimi, is about to be left with a grief-stricken friend? Or Schaunard, who is discreetly coughing up blood?