La Boheme – Review – Leeds Grand Theatre
By Sandra Callard, October 2019
La Boheme has been a favourite of opera lovers since Puccini first brought it to the stage in Turin in 1896. The passage of time has not dulled its appeal, and its universal theme of youth, idealism and love has been carried triumphantly from the nineteenth to the twenty-first century.
Leeds’ own Opera North is bringing their latest production of La Boheme to the stage with a setting of student life in the Fifties. A dingy and depressing backdrop and set is in vivid contrast to the carefree and intellectual enthusiasm of the students, an unkempt selection of idealistic artists, poets and writers who live in poverty in a rundown block of flats.
The growing love affair between an embroiderer, Mimi and a poet, Rodolfo, begins when she asks him for help in finding a lost key, and is sung with a powerful emotion by Australian Lauren Fagan and Mexican Eleazar Rodriguez. Their love transcends their surroundings, and Act One closes on a note of hope as Puccini’s sublime music soars.
Opera can be visually beautiful and spectacular, so to see such drab interiors on stage is a jolt to the eyes. Whilst understanding what it represents, the relentlessness of it engenders the hope that the opera that follows will minimise the shabby and lacklustre scenes. They do liven up somewhat in the rundown cafes, but never achieve anything like comfort or pleasure. It is a small price to pay, however, for the wonderful music, the glorious voices and the eternal themes of love and loss.
“Sets the stage alight”
With the arrival of Musetta and her new lover there is a splash of colour to the cafe scene. Musetta is a former lover of Marcello, who is furious and jealous at the intervention. Musetta is sung by Armenian Anush Hovhannisyan in her first role for Opera North and her debut is dazzling. Marcello, a painter, and a sympathetic friend to Mimi, is sung and played with consummate ease by Ukrainian baritone Yuriy Yurchuk, and the relationship between the two singers sets the stage alight.
Mimi becomes ill and help is given by the inmates of the flats. The pleasure loving Musetta surprisingly comes to her aid as she pawns her jewellery to obtain medicine for her and Rodolfo is reunited with Mimi in a moving final Act.
There is a true cosmopolitan flavour amongst the singers of this production which speaks volumes for the international stature that Opera North has achieved. Based in Leeds, and with its core of talented British opera singers, the company has, in a relatively short time, accrued talented singers and musicians from around the globe, whose input is always received with acclaim.
Puccini’s famous overture to La Boheme is a recurring musical theme throughout the opera. It fluctuates in intensity and sound to illustrate the variations in the story and is quite beautiful both in sound and effect. Of course, in opera the music is paramount, and the story less so, and in La Boheme this is exemplified.
The story is simple, sad and familiar in most parts to everyone watching. The music is towering and sublime and when the two are put together the combination is exquisite.
images: Richard H. Smith