There are two big stars in Opera Holland Park’s new production of La Bohème. Katie Bird’s Mimi rides Puccini’s great melodic rollers with ease and a luminous clarity, while the City of London Sinfonia, conducted by George Jackson, play quite wonderfully a score that was intended for a somewhat larger orchestra.
Notwithstanding the great swell of Puccini’s score, Bohème is, at heart, though, an intense and intimate opera. Its most touching moments – the first meeting of Mimi and Rodolfo in an icy garret, Mimi’s heartbroken conversation with Marcello about Rodolfo’s jealousy and, above all, the final scene of Mimi’s death – are all duets or, at most, for the smallest of ensembles.
In Natascha Metherell’s new setting, however, the stage is a great deal busier. Updated to the 1950s, we are on an Italian film set shooting “La Vie Parisienne”, a Belle Epoque era story set in the Latin Quarter. As a result, there is a film crew (played by an often silent chorus) moving props, flats, lighting and cameras around and watching the action.
Inevitably, we have to question: is any of the action real or is it all just part of the film? Certainly, the key players all have roles within the film industry – Rodolfo the poet is now an aspiring scriptwriter and his friend Marcello is a set designer, while Colline is a cinematographer and Schaunard is a budding composer. Mimi herself works in the costume department. But are they also playing roles within the film itself?
The lovers’ first meeting in the dark garret is lit not by Mimi’s flickering candle but by the film’s lighting crew. At best – and you can argue a case for this – it blurs the border between film and reality. At worst, it brings an arch knowingness to the proceedings that is surely at odds with Puccini’s heart-wrenching music.
At times, though, the ploy really does work. Musetta (a great performance from Elizabeth Karani) is now a star of the silver screen and delights at putting Benoit/Alcindoro through the wringer – Henry Grant Kerswell is on good form as both characters and the perfect dead ringer himself for Hitchcock. The big scenes for the chorus and the Tiffin Boys’ Choir, too, work well in the Belle Epoque costumes, performed straight to camera and looking the epitome of the big-budget Fifties musical.
Curiously, all of the action is set on the main back stage while the front runway that encircles the orchestra remains almost entirely unused. This means the most intimate moments disappear in the furthest distances from the audience and usually among a crowd. As a result, the jokey antics of the four friends are lost entirely despite strong performances from Adam Gilbert (who starts off tentatively as Rodolfo but by Act II is terrific), Barnaby Rea, Harry Thatcher and a very sympathetic Ross Ramgobin as Marcello. And to have Mimi’s deathbed so far from the audience was a classic opportunity missed.
So, some great singing, fantastic playing but could we get all those people off the stage please?
La Bohème is sung in Italian with English surtitles. Further performances are on 23, 25, 27, 29 July; 1, 3, 5 August. For more information, and for bookings, please visit www.operahollandpark.com.
Production photos by Craig Fuller