Having recently been introduced to Jonathan Larson’s musical Rent, I was really intrigued to see a performance of its original source material. La Boheme is currently being performed by the Welsh National Opera (WNO) as part of their ‘Love’s Poisoned Chalice’ season. Set here on the eve of the First World War, it is essentially a love story between down-on-his-luck poet Rodolfo and his next door neighbour, a seamstress called Mimi. However, as is evident from the season’s title, those first passions of love do not necessarily last.
As soon as the curtain rises on this WNO production, the most striking thing for me is the enclosed nature of the set. We begin in the bedsit of Rodolfo and his three bohemian chums – Marcello, Schaunard and Colline. The mirrored walls either side make for an intimate setting. The presence of a battered chair, blanket and disused stove immediately convey the penniless existence of these four friends. They even have to resort to burning Rodolfo’s manuscript to get some heat, the smell of which, being seated in the front row, hits your nose sharply. The lighting too is used to brilliant effect, creating a dinghy and rather dank atmosphere. This becomes much more beautifully subtle however, with a gorgeously purple tinge, when Mimi first visits Rodolfo to ask for some light when her candle burns out. What follows is a gorgeously intimate scene, complete with a wistful and dreamy score as the two become ever more romantically inclined.
I believe that the best orchestral performances that accompany live-action theatre are those in which the music and onstage action blend together so seamlessly that you forget that the accompanying score is live. This was exactly my experience whilst watching La Boheme. Manlio Benzi does a brilliant job in conducting his team of musicians to produce a very emotive and atmospheric score. This has the effect of drawing out even further the already passionate performances of the lead actors. Marina Costa-Jackson, in particular, is on sparkling form as Mimi. Hers is an impassioned and heartfelt performance. She creates such beautiful harmonies alongside Dominik Chenes (Rodolfo). The two are a delight to listen to, and to watch.
The most captivating part of this production for me has to be the atmospheric projections which, although composed of the most basic of graphics, nevertheless produce some stunning backdrops. The snowfall directly after the interval is captivating, and helps to produce a thoroughly bleak and heartbreaking scene. It sets up perfectly the fractures that have appeared in Rodolfo and Mimi’s relationship; it reflects the desperately ill health of Mimi herself.
La Boheme has a much more sombre and sad ending than Larson’s interpretation. There are similar themes surrounding love and money; tropes which appear familiar and, as such, one can make connections to – the use of candles, for instance. What strikes me most however, is how relevant the original appears to be, even as it reaches beyond its 100th birthday. It still has something very relevant to say without the need for a contemporary remake. It is perhaps why it remains so enduringly popular, evident in a packed out auditorium that was full of praise for this excellent production.
WNO have succeeded again in bringing an enjoyable and captivating opera to the Venue Cymru stage. If you have seen Rent, I would definitely recommend watching its original incarnation. If not, I can think of no better place to start than with this version of La Boheme. You might just appreciate Larson’s version all the more as a result.
Performed at Venue Cymru, Llandudno, North Wales, as part of WNO’s Spring 2017 season.
Featured Image (C) WNO