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Kate Valentine as Musetta, Gary Griffiths as Schaunard and David Soar as Colline [Photo by Catherine Ashmore courtesy of Welsh National Opera]
28 Oct 2012

La bohème on Tour, WNO, Oxford

Every major opera company needs a production of La bohème. It is one of the operas which has the potential to attract everyone, the work which will tempt the occasional opera goer into the theatre.

Giacomo Puccini : La bohème

Marcello: David Kempster; Rodolfo: Alex Vicens; Colline: Piotr Lempa; Schaunard: Daniel Grice; Benoit: Howard Kirk; Mimi: Giselle Allen; Parpignol: Michael Clifton-Thompson; Alcindoro: Martin Lloyd; Musetta: Kate Valentine; Customs Official: Laurence Cole; Customs Sergeant: Stephen Wells. Chorus and Orchestra of Welsh National Opera. Conductor: Simon Phillippo. Director: Annabel Arden. Designer: Stephen Brimson Lewis.

Thursday, October 25 2012, New Theatre, Oxford

Above: Kate Valentine as Musetta, Gary Griffiths as Schaunard and David Soar as Colline

Photos by Catherine Ashmore courtesy of Welsh National Opera


As such, larger companies tend to err on the side of caution when creating new productions. Puccini’s La bohème is quite tightly constructed, and it doesn’t take easily to deconstruction or redefinition; the most directors tend to do is to move the period of the action from the mid-1800’s of the original. Annabel Arden’s new production for Welsh National Opera concentrates on telling the story in a clear, direct manner and illuminating the relationships between the characters with telling details. The production was new in June 2012, but WNO has revived it for their autumn tour; as a number of the original cast are in this revival it feels more like an extension of the original run.

I caught it on Thursday 25 October at the New Theatre, in Oxford. The New Theatre was originally a 1930’s cinema, and though the theatre takes large scale musical shows, there seems to be no pit, The WNO orchestra played from the floor of the stalls, which did seem to affect balance slightly though conductor Simon Phillippo did his best to keep the orchestra down and the singers were never overwhelmed. Phillippo is a WNO staff conductor who has taken over from Carlo Rizzi for this revival.

Arden and her designer Stephen Brimson Lewis have set the opera in the Paris of the early 20th century. These Bohemians are some of the young artists who flocked to Paris in these years, Les Annees Folles. The advantage of this is that we no longer have to think of the men as students. Though WNO’s singers were all young, this relieved the men of some of the more embarrassing antics which can mar acts 1 and 3. Here the men were skittish, but believable.

The setting for act 1 was rather cool. The set was a fixed structure, with a ramp at the back and doors on from the sides, all in metal. For act 1 these were disguised by translucent drops which depicted a Parisian roof-scape (in white), along with projections to add atmosphere. The flat had no walls, which combined with the translucent nature of the drops, meant that Arden could create some magical effects. The moment when Marcello (David Kempster), Colline (Piotr Lempa) and Schaunard (Daniel Grice) appear in the street and shout up to Rodolfo (Alex Vicens) and Mimi (Giselle Allen) was magical.

For act 2, the entire setting was in the open air, with waiters coming and going through the big metal doors at the side of stage. Projections on the back enlivened things, adding detail to what could have been a stark setting. I felt that Arden’s handling of the crowds in the busier parts of the scene seemed a little stilted, as if she was feeling constrained by the need to make a busy stage out of not quite enough people. She relied quite heavily on the excellent childrens chorus and on Michael Clifton-Thompson’s Parpignal (in a monkey mask!) to create movement. But from the moment when Musetta (Kate Valentine) struck up the waltz song, it was spell-binding. It seemed that Arden was best at illuminating individual details in the opera.

Boheme_WNO_2012_05.gifMichael Clifton-Thompson as Parpignol with cast

During this scene, the playing of the time period was, I think, a little heavy handed with one woman dressed as a man, another looking like Gertrude Stein or Frida Kahlo and two men in drag. Perhaps Paris was really like this at that time, but it felt a bit over done.

For act 3 the set was reduced to its simple basics, forming a bleak cold backdrop to the action. In the final act, though we were back in the flat, there were no drops of streetscapes, everything was bleaker, cooler, simpler; a rather elegant use of naturalism and stylisation to aid the story telling.

Spanish tenor Alex Vicens was in the original production but his Mimi, Giselle Allen, was new for this revival. Vicens has an appealing stage manner, his Rodolfo was endearing and involving in ways that do not always happen. Vicens had a tendency to semaphore with his hands, a habit that the director had clearly not been able to break him of, but he conveyed Rodolfo’s charm. You could understand why Mimi might fall for him. It has to be admitted that Vicens voice was a bit dry at the top, so that the famous moments in act 1 did not flower, quite the way they should have done. But Vicens was ardent and intense, shaping the music nicely.

Giselle Allen did not seem entirely comfortable in act 1 either. She and Vicens generated real tension and real attraction during their scene, the action was dramatically believable but musically it did not quite blossom. In fact, their strongest moment musically was act 3; this seemed to suit Allen’s voice best and their duet was heart breaking both dramatically and musically. I did wonder whether Allen’s repertoire might suggest her moving in a rather more dramatic direction. She is not the most Italianate of singers, but applied real intelligence to the role and was always a delight dramatically.

The strength of Arden’s production was in the little naturalistic details which she illuminated the action. In the wrong hands this would seem fussy, but here it helped made sense of the plot. And the act 4 death scene for Mimi was one of the most moving, least stagey that I have ever come across; a testament both to Arden and to Vicens and Allen.

Of course, this attention to detail helped make the most of the role of the other Bohemians. David Kempster’s Marcello came over as the lynchpin of the action. Kempster and Arden made the role of Marcello seem stronger and more important than is sometimes the case. The on-off romance of Marcello with Kate Valentine’s Musetta was a serious counter-poise to Rodolfo and Mimi rather than a side show. Valentine’s account of Musetta’s waltz in act 2 was a delight, but Arden developed it into a real dramatic moment as well. Kempster was serious and intense and you really felt for him.

One of the virtues of the production was that, at the end you were aware of the different characters reactions to Mimi’s death and came away with the feeling that none of their lives would quite be the same again.

Piotr Lempa was slightly dry voiced as Colline but his aria to his coat was touching. Daniel Grice had lovely swagger as Schaunard, complete with long hair and velvet suit. For once the hi-jinks in act 4 didn’t feel forced.

Martin Lloyd made a gross Alcindoro, perhaps too highly caricatured. Laurence Cole and Stephen Wells were the customs officials in act 3.

Simon Phillippo conducted with care and efficiency. His speeds kept things moving, without seeming rushed. But occasionally I wanted him to stretch things out, to dwell a little more. This is a case of styles of rubato, enjoying things without dwelling on them too much. But Phillippo drew fine playing from his orchestra and supported the singers admirably.

Arden has concentrated on the details in Puccini’s opera, telling the story with clarity and applying directorial gloss with subtlety. Perhaps there is scope for an edgier reading of the opera, but that would then not be the popular vehicle which the WNO needs for touring. Because this was popular, the house applauded warmly and I overheard many discussions about the opera as I walked to the station.

Robert Hugill

Click here for a photo gallery, together with video and audio presentations of this production.

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