Celine Byrne as Mimi in Irish National Opera's La Bohème. Image uncredited
Paris. The city of light, love, and life loving bohemians. Awash with art, heart, and hubris, Puccini's timeless 1896 opera, La Bohème, based on Henri Munger's novel Scènes de la vie de Bohème, published 1851, has probably done more than most to mythologise Paris and Parisians. Whose passions are often best revealed when in distress. In Puccini's heart-rending interpretation, the lives, loves, and longings of Paris' poverty stricken Latin Quarter are romantically writ large. And made sumptuous in Irish National Opera's spellbinding concert performance. Featuring an outstanding Celine Byrne, whose inimitable Mimi, loving utterly and completely, is sure to melt even the hardest of hearts.
Irish National Opera's La Bohème. Image, Ros Kavanagh
Kicking off with the minimum of musical introductions, it's a case of eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die. So to hell with the rent, make sure you dine lavishly, and do so at someone else's expense. Marrying the unvarnished confidence of youth to a self serving selfishness passing for passion, the tenderness that underscores Puccini's artistic souls is often well hidden. Apart from the consumptive Mimi, who wears her ailing heart on her sleeve. A heart she gives to the poet Rodolfo, who she meets one night looking for light. But love comes at a cost, as the kept Musetta, and aspiring painter Marcello, know only too well. A cost Rodolfo seems unwilling to pay. Yet if love doesn't conquer all, as the circle comes full, and closes, it's better to have loved and lost than to have loved and run away. For a love of art, or for another, might well break your heart, but it's still the only risk worth taking.
Merūnas Vitulskis (Rodolfo) and Celine Byrne (Mimi) in Irish National Opera's La Bohème. Image, Ros Kavanagh
Featuring a stellar ensemble, INO's concert performance, (streamed live from the stage of the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre on March 13), delivers an operatic tour de force. While formal dress in a concert setting risks undermining the evocation of character, such limiting restrictions are successfully negotiated. Even so, singers often seem chomping at the bit to physically express themselves, engage with one another, and make better use of the stage. Leaving you to speculate blindly as to what might have been had not the nightmare that is COVID prevented a full scale production. A huge shame, even allowing that the enforced conditions facilitated INO's first venture into recording. Differences in operatic recordings might lie in subtleties and nuances, but twins are defined by what distinguishes them, not by what they share. On the evidence of this performance, INO's La Bohème is a recording you will not want to be without.
Sergio Alapont conducts the Irish National Opera Orchestra in Irish National Opera's La Bohème. Image, Ros Kavanagh
Conducting with the rigour and delicacy of a master at a Zen tea ceremony, Sergio Alapont marshals INO's Orchestra with aplomb, with each giving an invested and exquisite performance. If the conversational, call and response structure of Puccini's singing favours duet and ensemble, (with INO making surprisingly effective use of off stage singing) it draws greater attention to those individual moments when singers get to shine. Tilt the balance fractionally and solos can stick out like a sentimental sore thumb. Yet get it right, and they resemble jewels resting on musical velvet. From soloists to ensemble, to the chorus placed strategically throughout the COVID conscious auditorium, INO get it right with uncanny consistency. Bass John Molloy's Colline, baritone Ben McAteer's Schaunard, and baritone Eddie Wade's Benoit all delight. Tenor Merūnas Vitulskis as Rodolfo sings superbly, and his rendering of the suave and seductive Che gelida manina is an absolute treat. Baritone David Bizic's muscular Marcello, and soprano Anne Devin's marvellous Musetta, shine resplendently in an already radiant ensemble.
Anne Devin (Musetta) in Irish National Opera's La Bohème. Image, Ros Kavanagh
Then there's soprano Celine Byrne. As the emotional lynchpin around which everything coalesces, the role of Mimi makes considerable demands, dramatically as well as vocally. Not least because Mimi's loving beyond all measure risks her seeming like a naive Disney princess out of place in a world of feckless men and calculating women. Indeed, while unquestionably one of opera's greatest death scenes, the excess of melodramatic sentiment during Mimi's demise risks, as Oscar Wilde once remarked of Dickens' Little Nell, it being impossible to experience without laughing. If her Mimi skirts close to the tipping point, Byrne smartly avoids it, trading easy sentiment for an emotional rawness whose vulnerability proves irresistible. Indeed, vocally and dramatically, Byrne is both breathtaking and magnetic. From Si. Mi Chiamano Mimi, to Donde lieta usci, and everywhere in between, Byrne's Mimi burns brightly, whether soaring the scales or beckoning Rodolfo with an alluring curve of her finger.
Soprano Celine Byrne. Image by Shane McCarthy
Unapologetically romantic, the unforgiving might deny La Bohème its deft touches of realism, but even they can't deny its complexity of character. There are no heroes or villains here. Just flawed, fully fledged human beings trying, failing, failing to try, and trying too hard to enjoy all that life has to offer. With their dives, dreams, and their 'damn the world, we're making life into art' attitude, Puccini's bohemians sing to the punks of the 1970s. Or the New Romantics of the 1980s. Or to any bright young things of today, or yesterday, ready to risk it all for art or love. If suffused, somewhat, by the nostalgic glow from golden days in the sunshine of a happy youth, La Bohème is never afraid to show that the gold of youth is sometimes tarnished, and its days prone to spells of inclement weather. Yet it is living and loving large that makes life worthwhile. Ultimately, La Bohème still resonates by singing to those foolish enough to risk, or remember, loving and giving of themselves with utter surrender. And to those greater fools too afraid of the cost to risk it. Don't be a fool. There have been many Mimis; there is only one Celine Byrne. Surrender to Byrne's memorable Mimi, and fall in love with Irish National Opera's La Bohème.
La Bohème by Giacomo Puccini, libretto by Guiseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica, after Henri Murger's book Scènes de la vie de Bohème, presented by Irish National Opera in partnership with Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, is available online till March 20.