My friend John O’Brien, who’s done a lot of reviews for me over the years, is now on the press list at The Coliseum. Below is his wonderful La Bohème Review by Puccini at The Coliseum. It’s such an evocative description, it made me want to go myself.
One way I decide whether I’m enjoying a play or opera is by my experience of time passing.
When time passes quickly I know I’m absorbed and so don’t notice time. When time drags something is wrong. By this measure La Bohème flies by. The two hours seem to pass in minutes. At the end I just wanted it to start all over again. That for me is a sure fire way of telling if I have had a worthwhile evening. Since its first performance in Turin on 1st February 1896 Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème has been captivating audiences around the world. It has become Puccini’s most popular opera (Madam Butterfly comes a close second) and one of the most popular works of all time. It’s certainly a favourite of the public and the one opera most people have seen live.
The English National Opera are doing everything in their power to get audiences back to the Coliseum and at the same time to broaden the reach of opera to new audiences. Under 21’s go free so it’s a good opportunity for young people to give opera a chance. La Bohème is the place to start. It’s got all the operatic pyrotechnics that you could possibly want. Love, death, sex, food, music and singing of such exquisite sensitivity to break anyone’s heart. If you feel unsure about opera, perhaps intimidated then La Bohème is the way to overcome such barriers and enter the wonderful world of opera. Give it a chance it will change your life.
In a nutshell, this La Bohème Review is about four young men attic sharing in Paris. A poet, a painter, a philosopher and a musician. They represent the young rebels who want to live life the way they want. They have very little money so they rent an attic and try to get by. This lifestyle gave rise to the term “Bohemian”. The problem is money. How do you pay for freedom? The opera starts with a tragicomic illustration of this dilemma. The hero the poet Rodolfo (superbly portrayed by David Junghoon Kim) offers to burn his manuscript to heat the attic. So we see that the bohemian lifestyle leads to poverty.
That’s the first problem.
The second problem is love.
How do you love with no money and no conventional rules to live by? This is at the heart of the relationship between Rodolfo and the opera‘s heroine Mimi (Sinead Campbell-Wallace, wonderful). The power of La Bohème to hold us is in the Mimi/Rodolfo love story. Like Romeo and Juliet it’s a story of young lovers, loss and remorse. The opera works its magic by drawing us into this world so that we feel what they feel. La Bohème gives us the sound of music and the power of words simultaneously.
There is nothing like it.
This production revives Jonathan Miller’s 2009 production.
Miller moves the action from the Paris of the 1890s to the Paris of the 1930s. Think George Orwell “Down and Out in Paris and London.” He said he wanted the opera to feel like a movie. In fact he wanted the four young men to remind us of “Withnail and I” – a film about upper class boys who think squalor romantic.
The sets by the brilliant designer Isabella Bywater are based on the foggy, atmospheric photography of Paris by night published in 1933 by Brassai.
The sets work so well that I actually felt the cold of Paris. The theme of cold runs through the opera. Everywhere is cold, the attic, the street, even most movingly Mimi’s hand – ‘Che gelida manina ‘in English’ “What a frozen little hand”, starts the love between Rodolfo and Mimi as they touch fingers for the first time and it gives the opera its most heart breaking song. The cold of winter is constantly contrasted with the warmth of love. Holding hands and love are the answer. Rodolfo desperately tries to warm Mimi’s hands in his. Generosity is the answer. The philosopher Colline (William Thomas) offers to pawn his coat and Musetta (Louise Alder, terrific) – her earrings to pay for a doctor for Mimi. (I’m making La Bohème sound like a Beatles album; “I wanna hold your hand” and “All you need is love”).
This balance between cold and warmth is reflected in the nuances of the music.
Puccini’s score is endlessly rich and evocative. Themes, tunes, snatches of melody are briefly, hauntingly repeated. The grim cold reality of Paris is transcended not just by human love and acts of kindness but by the lyrical magic Puccini’s music casts over it. This contradiction between the cold hard realities of real life and the transcendent magic of music is what gives La Bohème its indubitable power to melt the coldest of cold hearts. La Bohème has been working its magic on audiences for 126 years this February. Unbelievable.
I urge you to become part of this great ongoing tradition.