Dying love: Anita Hartig as the fatally ill Mimi in a freezing cold Paris. Pictures: Catherine Ashmore

La bohème

Welsh National Opera

Birmingham Hippodrome

*****

PUCCINI'S enduring story of tragic, doomed love in the Bohemian Paris of the nineteenth century has found a new heroine in Romanian soprano Anita Hartig as the fated Mimi. She is just magnificent.

She looks young, frail and vulnerable, as she should as a poor, young, starving seamstress who is dying of consumption, but her slender frame contains a huge voice which can soar or whisper with crystal clarity.

Her solos and duets were a delight and the romantic duet O soave fanciulla with Rodolfo, sung by Spanish tenor Alex Vicens was quite stunning.

This is a new production and praise should go also to experienced West End, RSC and Broadway designer Stephen Brimson Lewis who provided an effective yet minimal set.

A very clever pair of sliding panels provided an opening to each scene as if through the leaves of a camera shutter.

There was also clever use of video projection of snow, for example and as we first opened on the studio of painter Marcello and poet Rodolfo a huge, floating rear window was like those psychedelic light shows of the 60s reflecting an artist's ever-changing palate.

A room was signified by a few sticks of furniture and a stand-alone door, while we knew it was a garret by the view over the rooftops of Paris projected on the back wall; the pavement outside the Café Momus was created by a large table and waiters while the Paris Toll house was signified by a barrier.

Rodolfo (Alex Vicens) looks on in despair as Mimi (Anita Hartig) reaches the end of her tragic life

A projected blizzard and real snow, real as in stage snow, falling from the flies helped bring a chill to proceedings.

 There are huge swiveling panels in the wings providing a dull reflection of colour or light when needed or turned to obscurity of not.

It is all very simple but remarkably effective in partnership with clever lighting from Tim Mitchell, another West End, Broadway and RSC stalwart.

They set the scene firmly in Paris and firmly about the time of Henry Murger's book Scènes de la vie de bohème, published in 1851 and set in the 1840s, which contained the original idea for the opera.

But opera is about music and story and Welsh National Opera has assembled a cast who can bring both to life. They can sing, and, just as important, they can act and make their characters believable, putting flesh and blood on the voices.

 Welsh baritone David Kempster is superb as Marcello, with a powerful voice that can manage a full range of emotions from fun with his friends, anger and romance with his on-off lover Musetta - sung with fiery passion by Scottish soprano Kate Valentine - to anguish and sorrow at the impending death of Mimi.

His duets with both Musetta and Mimi blend and balance beautifully, which is not always the case when otherwise fine voices combine.

There is also good support from Nottinghamshire born bass David Soar  as the philosopher Colline and Welsh Baritone Gary Griffiths as the flamboyant musician Schaunard while Leicestershire born Howard Kirk brought some light relief as the none-too bright landlord with a liking for the ladies.

Soar managed one of those magical scenes when he sang Vecchia zimarra, old coat, as he prepared to pawn his “old friend” to help buy medicine and pay for a doctor for the dying Mimi. He sang it quite beautifully I might add.

How can anyone possibly get emotional about saying goodbye to an old, worn great coat? Colline did and so did the audience in what was a strangely touching moment.

Negotiating the rent: Colline (David Soar), left, Schaunard (Gary Griffiths), Benoit (Howard Kirk), centre, , Rodolfo (Alex Vicens) and Marcello (David Kempster)

It was all in vain though. We are finally left with a scene of cold desolation, Mimi dead in the grey winter light amid broken windows and broken dreams.

There are one or two aspects of Annabel Arden's direction which are a little baffling, such as the drag queens looking like left overs from a production of Les cage aux folles hanging around the back of the Café Momus. Perhaps it was to give a flavour of bohemian life but why a bloke in a monkey mask and check suit, looking like he is on his way to a Planet of the Apes production of Guys and Dolls appeared at the café was beyond me. Was it Parpignol the toy seller in disguise perhaps – who knows?

I am sure Toulouse Lautrec or Renoir would have found time to commit ape men to canvas had they been Latin Quarter regulars.

The Welsh National Opera orchestra, conducted by Carlo RIzzi, were, as always first class with Rizzi managing to both accompany the singers with sensitivity and drive the tuneful score along.

La bohème is the fourth most frequently performed opera in the world, apparently and it is easy to see why. It is not too long, has a simple easy to follow story, a score full of passion and melody, a bit of fun, a bit of romance and a nice tragic death to finish with.

For anyone new to opera or wondering what it is all about, at just over two hours, including interval, this is an easy one to start of with.

A major new production is an event and this is one that deserves to have a place in any repertoire – perhaps without the ape though – for many years to come. To 15-06-12

Roger Clarke 

Meanwhile in the what do I know department I am informed by WNO that: "The ‘ape' man was a real act from that time in Paris  – a man dressed as a monkey dressed as a man!

"In this production they have cast him as Parpignol.  We also have Houdini in the café scene and other well-known characters from that time."

So there! What do I know? I stand stuffed with humble quiche (this is Paris after all)  . . .  but I still thought it was bizarre . . . just glad no one thought of Le Pétomane.

And viewed from another aria . . .

****

THIS brand new production of Puccini's famous opera is beautifully sung and acted by members of the WNO.

It is a triumph for acclaimed director Annabel Arden, featuring some remarkable yet simple sets, cleverly revealed by sliding gauze screens, and there is a particularly convincing snow fall which adds to the chill of the sparse Parisian garrett studio occupied by poet Rudolfo and his three hard-up pals.

Love soon brings warmth to the freezing studio, however, when artificial flower-maker Mimi knocks on the door seeking a light for her candle.

That leads to the emotional duet Che gelida manina (Your tiny hand is frozen) and Mi chiamano Mimi (My name is Mimi) in which Shaun Dixon (Rudolfo) and Giselle Allen (Mimi) sang superbly on Thursday night. (Alex Vicens and Anita Hartig filled the roles on Wednesday and Friday.

David Kempster excels as painter Marcello, while Kate Valentine adds colour and style as his on-off girlfriend, Musetta.

As happens in opera, tragedy is lurking, with Mimi's health failing and a heart-breaking finale sees her die from consumption.

Sung in Italian with English surtitles helping everyone to follow the story, La boheme benefits from the quality of the orchestra of the WNO, conducted by Carlo Rizzi

Paul Marston

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