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  • Chris O'Rourke

La Bohème

Iurii Samoilov (Marcello), Lukas Jakobski (Colline), Gyula Nagy (Schaunard), Merūnas Vitulski


and Celine Byrne (Mimì) in INO’s production of La Bohème. Photo Ros Kavanagh


La Bohème (1895), Giacomo Puccini’s tale of young Parisians living and loving wildly, is one of the world’s best loved operas. So often performed, some claim, it’s become a reference referencing itself. An operatic trope whose contrived plot has more holes than a sieve, propped up by some memorable musical moments. Which is a little like saying Michelangelo’s David is a lump of stone resembling some fit guy posing. True, there’s some truth to it, but it tells you nothing and misses everything. In Irish National Opera’s production of La Bohème, finally taking to the stage in all its spectacular splendour, magic informs every moment of Orpha Phelan’s breathtaking direction and Sergio Alapont’s flawless conducting. And let's not forget some exquisite singing. Indeed, rarely has Puccini looked or sounded better.

Celine Byrne (Mimì) and Merūnas Vitulskis (Rodolfo) in INO’s production of La Bohème. Photo Ros Kavanagh

Not that it all works all of the time. Nicky Shaw’s beautiful sets might contain mesmerising street exteriors, but studio interiors are another matter entirely, with neither looking very Parisian. The artists rundown studio more like a homeless shelter behind the arches of a London lockup. Or a Bolognian portico. Or the ghost of Victorian Manchester. Anywhere but Paris. Or indoors for that matter. Its tall, grey walls spattered red like Mimi’s consumptive lungs. Flipping to fractured photographs of soprano Celine Byrne’s inspired Mimi, hands raised as if in refusal of us, looking completely out of place and trying too hard. Burdening Shaw’s costumes with the responsibility for creating a time and place, which they do splendidly. Phelan opting for Paris street life of the 1920s rather than the original’s 1840s. The era further reflected in Phelan’s use of cinematic tropes including Dietrich’s Weimar stylings, Chaplin’s Dance of The Bread Rolls, and the vaudevillian playfulness of the Marx Brothers.

Merūnas Vitulskis (Rodolfo), Iurii Samoilov (Marcello), Gyula Nagy (Schaunard) in INO’s La Bohème. Photo Ros Kavanagh

As action unfolds on a cold, Christmas Eve, its four artistic musketeers are all for one and one for all, especially the one with the money. Poet Rodolfo (tenor Merūnas Vitulskis), painter Marcello (baritone Iurii Samoilov), philosopher Colline (baritone Lukas Jakobski) and musician Schaunard (baritone Gyula Nagy) living only for the sake of their art. Rent, fuel, food, what care they when they can beg, borrow, get someone else to pay or deceive their landlord Benoit (bass Eddie Wade), a man clearly in need of glasses. Courtesy of a little seasonal good luck, the gang head to Momus restaurant, minus Rodolpo who has an article to finish. Facilitating one of the most contrived romantic encounters in opera. Granted, Paris has a reputation for people falling in love at first sight. But Rodolpo’s chance meeting with the ailing Mimi sets light speed records for how quickly they go from strangers to couple in a matter of arias. But oh, what arias. Rodolpo’s Che gelida manina and Mimi’s Si, Mi chiamano Mimi confirming their impossible love as an undeniable truth. Made hauntingly memorable by Vitulskis and Byrne respectively.

Celine Byrne (Mimì) and Merūnas Vitulskis (Rodolfo) in INO’s production of La Bohème. Photo Ros Kavanagh

A deft switch to a street scene, courtesy of a beautiful transition by Shaw, sees Mimi and Rodolpo take a back seat to the emotional duelling of the impetuous Marcello and the vivacious Musette (soprano Sarah Brady). Who often take a back seat to the Irish National Opera Chorus vibrantly inhabiting every inch of the stage. Phelan resisting the easy temptation of making La Bohème Mimi’s opera. Reminding us that Marcello and Musette’s mirroring tale also inform Puccini’s larger concerns which exist within a broader context. In which romance might loom large, but not romanticised notions of poverty. Embodied in clichés such as artists suffering for their work and that love conquers all. The artist’s work often the first thing sacrificed in order for them to survive. Love neither conquering, nor offering more than fleeting consolation. Being, instead, poverty's first casualty. Lacking life’s basics such as heat, food and a roof over their heads, the loves, art and joys of youth are apt to be short lived. As is youth itself. A timely message for today.

Celine Byrne (Mimì) and Iurii Samoilov (Marcello) in INO’s production of La Bohème. Photo Ros Kavanagh

Making La Bohème an opera of two halves. Or rather four quarters, where acts one and two emotionally set you up so acts three and four can knock you down then stomp all over your heartstrings. Shaw’s February dark laneway, through which pockets of Parisians quietly parade, illuminated perfectly by Matt Haskin. Shaw and Haskin conjuring scenic magic as Mimi haunts the engulfing shadows trying to discover why Rodolfo has changed. Themes of male jealousy writ large throughout, here disguising Rodolfo’s greater fear. Setting up a poignant reconciliation, if not an entirely believable resolution. The librettists less interested in how the story gets there so much as plopping characters into high tension scenes and leaving Puccini to do the emotional lifting. Which he does marvellously. Alapont’s conducting of the Irish National Opera Orchestra releasing La Bohème full emotional richness. Especially during the final, heart wrenching act during which, under Phelan’s exceptional direction, even the silence sings.

Iurii Samoilov (Marcello), Sarah Brady (Musetta), Lukas Jakobski (Colline), Gyula Nagy (Schaunard), Merūnas Vitulskis (Rodolfo) and Celine Byrne (Mimì) in INO’s La Bohème. Photo Ros Kavanagh

Those who enjoyed the 2021 concert performance, broadcast and recorded during lockdown, will find this full production of La Bohème a vastly different beast, which also includes some cast changes. A production defined, in no small measure, by Phelan. Opera presents additional challenges to directing for theatre, leaving many directors leaning into staid tableaus and looking out of their depth. What makes INO’s La Bohème so thrilling is the sweep and richness of movement married to the stirring quality of its singing, both housed in the most gorgeous staging. Phelan’s refreshingly exciting compositions a whirlwind of expressive energy that leave you struggling to tear your eyes away to read the surtitles. Even though you know how it all ends, Phelan has you hoping against hope it might yet be otherwise whilst teasing out oft forgotten themes. Even when you can’t believe the libretto, you can’t help but believe in La Bohème’s music, singing and remarkable performances. A tragic tale that’s an absolute joy, Phelan delivers a tour-de-force.

La Bohème by Giacomo Puccini, libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica after Henry Murger’s Scènes de la vie de bohème, presented by Irish National Opera, runs at Bord Gáis Energy Theatre until November 26.


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