Parisian tragedy still delights

La Bohème

Welsh National Opera

Birmingham Hippodrome


PUCCINI'S love story set in the Latin Quarter of Paris has all the basic ingredients of the ideal opera – doomed romance, a fragile heroine gradually wasting away, colourful characters, a touch of humour and, of course, a few well-known tunes.

With all of this in the mix, La bohème has remained a stalwart of not only Welsh National's repertoire but it also makes frequent appearances among countless other companies.

And its popularity offers its own challenges. I have seen La bohèmes taking place in all kinds of periods and settings –some more successful than others.

Here director Annabel Arden keeps it relatively traditional although she moves the timing on a little from Puccini. Set in pre-First World War Paris, this is an age where artists go hungry for their art, cafés are the height of social sophistication and tuberculosis is rife.

Designer Stephen Brimson Lewis' sets bring this period to life while adding a nod to modernism with projection onto glass panes at the back of the stage and huge metallic screens on either side.

At its centre the love story is played out. Alex Vicens is a rapidly enchanted Rodolfo when Mimi, played by Giselle Allen, knocks on his door. This early scene is always a little tricky as the couple go from not knowing each other to entirely devoted in roughly a quarter of an hour. But Puccini's beautiful music and an instant connection between the two helps to convince us we are watching love at first sight.

This romance is less convincing at it evolves in the production and the final scene in which Rodolfo loses the love of his life is surprisingly disjointed. There is a lot of movement on stage which risks diluting the concentration of the couple's final moments.

Stronger as a couple are David Kempster's Marcello and Kate Valentine's Musetta. As the two characters fight their battles of rivalry and jealousy there is humour but also a real sense of passion between them.

They are given strong support by Piotr Lempa as Colline and Daniel Grice as Schaunard while Michael Clifton-Thomas takes the character of toy-seller Parpignol to a new level by playing the role as a monkey in a suit. Also on Saturday, 10-11-12.

Diane Parkes 


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