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Elin Pritchard as Mimi and Jung Soo Yun as Rodolfo. Pictures: Richard Hubert Smith

La Bohème

Welsh National Opera

Birmingham Hippodrome


On a fittingly brisk cold night, matching the onstage atmosphere, The WNO delivered their new take on Puccini’s most dramatic and tragic work, La Bohème.

It is an opera that is a perfect introduction for anyone who has not seen or little connection to the art form. Set in a time typified by the notion of the starving artist, living penniless in a garret and surviving only for their art and love, it tells the tale of boyish ambition set against a tragic death.

La Bohème is simply a lad’s story of four playful young artists each struggling for their art. With them either writing or painting and often reduced to partying and foolery, things change when one cold winters night, poet Rodolpho meets his neighbour Mimi. Its love at first and all because of her need to relight a candle which in turn ignites a bigger flame that will lead to her own extinction.

This revival directed by Caroline Chaney perhaps is given a touch of the Les Miserables which will undoubtedly help in its appeal. However, the downside is that the balance of the production spends much of its time visually in a somewhat bland world of beige.

The focus is brought to an almost square setting within Stephen Brimson Lewis’ set and the costumes have a very Dickensian Christmas Carol aesthetic. This is especially so in the ensemble café piece with children dressed like carol singers of the period.

While often the staging was minimal there were several closed set segues. This was perhaps technically unavoidable, but it did break the flow of this gripping story, allowing the audience to mutter away whilst waiting.

However for an opera penned 1896, regardless of any criticism, it’s the music and singing that will eventually overpower you and is what makes this opera so influential. Even if you are not familiar with much of the work, the sheer emotion of the music translates to the characters joy or desperation.  

la bohem mid pic

It includes the aria, Che gelida manina, (What a cold little hand) familiar somehow to even those hearing it for the first time. The plot and its progression might be a bit tenuous, but while you ponder on the immediacy of it all, Puccini wipes away your doubt with a score that makes you care for them all.

The difficulty in many operas is the choice of performer for a role is very much aligned to their vocal ability and sometimes that does not translate well to the visual aspect for the part or their direction. An example here is when the men, clearly of a certain level of maturity, are playfully engaged in a childish pillow fight. It’s a pivotal scene with the impact of the terminally sick Mimi reappearing into their lives, but one that seems implausible.

Pietro Rizzo conducts the deeply romantic score that at its height creates a spell binding atmostphere. The performances are exceptional  with Marcello played by Rodion Pogossov, Jung Soo Yun as Rodolpho , the temptress Musetta delivered by Aoife Miskelly and the fated, heart-breaking role of Mimi by Elin Pritchard. There are many moments in the entire production that pass too quickly that you could happily have repeated.

This production stops short of exploring any deeper characterisation and its staging is effective and efficient. But in any setting La Bohème continues to thrill its audiences with the sheer scale of the emotion and contrast of a love for beauty and life being tragically snubbed out by untimely death. To 11-11-22.

Jeff Grant



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