Not quite the Bohemian rhapsody
It needs to be emphasised, right from the outset, that both music and singing in The Kolobov Novaya Opera Theatre of Moscow’s production of Puccini’s “La Boheme,” border on the sublime. Indeed, close your eyes and you are utterly transported. Open your eyes and it’s something of a different story. Director Georgy Isaakyan makes no bones about disliking artistic Bohemian types. Indeed, it could seem as if he rather dislikes “La Boheme” itself, with its ‘operatic rubbish and blind spots' were it not for the excellent singing and almost cinematic, orchestral sweep realised under his guidance. Yet he has concerns when it comes to staging. His solution, in part, is to move the action forward a century in the hope that 'characters are placed in one of the most interesting, hot and even spicy aesthetics and atmospheres - Paris in the late 1940s. It was a beautiful time: death and horror were left behind, and hope and new life were in prospect.’ If only, but not quite.
First performed in 1896, Puccini’s story of Bohemian artists living in poverty in Paris’ Latin Quarter in the 1840’s, is based on the 1851 novel, “Scenes De La Vie De Bohème” by Henri Murger. In a rooftop hovel overlooking Paris, four young friends, Rodolpo, Marcello, Colline and Schaunard suffer discomfort, cold and starvation for the sake of their art. They may not have it all, but they have one another along with their dreams. Into the fold comes Mimi, a sickly young woman who falls for Rodolpo. Meanwhile, Marcello is finding that the fires of passion for the vivacious Musetta may not yet be extinguished. Together they love, laugh, eat and enjoy until their joyous rite of passage into adulthood becomes marred by Mimi’s ill health. Soon choices have to be made as love is tested. Love may not always win, but in the end it’s always an experience worth having.
Like a curmudgeonry old crank lambasting the impetuousness of youth, “La Boheme,” under Georgy Isaakyan’s direction, forgets what it means to be young at times. Rather, it takes Puccini’s classic on youthful exuberance and reduces it to an abstraction about the pretensions of a particular type of artist. Yet if Isaakyan’s “La Boheme” challenges this type of artistic pretension, it's does so with some self-serving, artistic pretensions of its own. An initially impressive, but ultimately distracting set design by Hartmut Schörghofer, competes to be bigger than the performances themselves. Resembling a series of paintings with visual motifs through which the cast move, it soon begins to look like an oversized optical illusion. An immense spiral staircase leading up from a pitch dark centre, above which the dwarfed lovers quarrel, appears like the circles of Dante’s hell into which the lovers might fall, the visual image dominating over the undermined performance. Floating Santa Clauses also have the same effect, even if they do provide a good giggle.
Characterisation also suffers in places as a result of new accommodations not found in the original libretto. Rodolpo, often problematic at the best of times, becomes deeply dislikable and self serving when viewed thirty years later. Mimi, who spends half her time disembodied in what seems to be an out-of-body experience, loses much of her impact with Rodolpo, which created huge problems for Act Three. Indeed, it was often left to the siren like Musetta and desperate Marcello to bring any consistent passion to proceedings.
Musically, however, it's another matter entirely, and here Isaakyan does an outstanding job. Chief conductor, Jan Latham-Koenig and his orchestra are utterly sensational, bringing warmth, depth and texture to Puccini’s sublime music. Baritones Andrey Breus as Marcello, and Artyom Garnov as Schaunard, are both equally strong, as is bass Vitaly Evanov as Colline. Tenor, Aleksey Tatarintsev as Rodolfo is excellent, fighting against a deeply dislikable representation of a complex character, and of occasionally being overwhelemed vocally by the swell of the music. But the night truly belonged to sopranos Ekaterina Mironycheva, who as the vixen Musetta was a scene stealing delight, and Celine Byrne, as the deeply lonely, deeply loving Mimi. Performatively and vocally, both delivered outstanding performances, with Byrne’s solo’s being absolutely superb.
Innovation and new ideas are vital to the life blood of opera. Indeed, “La Boheme” has enjoyed many re-imaginings. Yet like an apologetic parent embarrassed by its unruly child, it almost seems at times as if this new take on "La Boheme" is somewhat ashamed of Puccini’s overwhelming romanticism. Visually, its anti Bohemian agenda is asserted almost at the expense of performance. Thankfully “La Boheme” is far more robust. If this new direction leaves something to be desired thematically, both music and singing under Isaakyan’s direction and the conducting prowess of maestro Jan Latham-Koenig, brim with longing, love and a lust for life. A musically moving production.
“La Boheme” by Puccini, produced by The Kolobov Novaya Opera Theatre of Moscow runs at The Bord Gáis Energy Theatre until December 4th
For more information, visit The Bord Gáis Energy Theatre