La Boheme is a young person’s opera and it was cheering to see the Royal Opera House filled with a much younger age group than usual. If the standing ovation at the end is anything to go by they were not disappointed. Perhaps too, it is not only the story of tragic young love in a garret, which has worked the change but also the various programmes the ROH’s have instigated to take opera outside the usual suspects, such as free live outdoor relays and simultaneous showings in cinemas.
Set in the working class Latin Quarter of Paris in the early nineteenth century, La Boheme, tells the story of the poet, Rodolfo’s love for the seamstress, Mimi, and the painter, Marcello’s, love for Musetta. The men live in an attic (surprisingly bright and clean in this production) with their friends Colline, a philosopher and Shaunard, a musician. As with all the best stories about love (think Jane Austen) money, or rather lack of it, turns out to be just as important as love.
They are all so poor that basic food is not taken for granted and, in the ice cold winter, as glittering snow falls on the garret’s roof, they seldom can afford heating. Into this starving-for-your-art scenario enters Mimi, a poor embroiderer of lilies and roses from the room downstairs. On her arrival, looking for a light for her cangle, she faints dramatically. As Rodolfo’s friends leave to celebrate a windfall of money, Brazilian tenor, Atalla Ayan makes the most of the famous and always beautiful aria, 'Che Gelida Manina...' usually dubbed ‘Your tiny hand is frozen.’
When the pair, already in love, set off to join the others, we are transported to Parisian street life, and the ROH stage is lavishly filled with splendidly attired matrons, charming demi-mondains, brass bands, street-sellers and fetching waifs and strays. From there we proceed to a restaurant where Musetta enters on the arm of her elderly patron. As she taunts her ex-lover Marcello and garlands him with her frilly knickers, it becomes clear that
she still loves him but that her feeling for him is very different from Mimi’s for Rodolfo’s. Can this glorious, romantic idealism survive starvation, cold and Mimi’s frail health?
La Boheme is not a long opera, two hours with four acts, but it is packed with some of Puccini’s most memorable arias and music. The ROH orchestra continues its high standard under the baton of Italian conductor, Nicola Luisotti. Musetta's defiant first aria, 'Quando me'n vo ...' (When I go out) has even been used as the basis for two pop songs. Blada Borovko not only sings with magnificent provocation but does it while standing on a table and taking off her underwear.
But of course the last act is the most moving when Mimi, played by Ektarina Siurina with gentle desperation, comes back to the artist's garret to find Rudolfo and die. Death scenes in opera come in many forms but this is probably the most naturalistic. While the men worry and debate how to help her, Mimi quietly passes away - but not before she has told Rudolfo of how she loves him and the pair have reprised the music of the original recognition of the their love.
Since La Boheme's first performance in 1896 (the second was conducted by the young Arturo Toscanini) it has become one of the most performed operas worldwide. Puccini set it in the Paris of the 1830s which had largely disappeared by the end of the century as a new modern city was created. But the appeal of this world of artists in garrets continues to cast its spell over yet another generation.
Libretto: Guiseppe Giacosa and Ligi Illica
Royal Opera House
Conductor: Nicola Luisotti
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