This was my first time at The Grand Theatre, Leeds, and I was very impressed with the building. A smallish but very comfortable auditorium suggested that acoustics would be fine here, at least in terms of volume – an aspect that (only slightly) marred Cecilia Bartoli’s performance at the Barbican last November.
George Hall’s lucid programme notes began by making a reference to the fact that while some operas are time and place specific, La boheme is free from such restraints, and later he verges on sentimentality when he writes: “All that one needs to relate to La boheme is an understanding of what it means to be young, of what it means to be poor, and of what it means to be in love”. Well, I think I fit all three of those criteria, but I still found the mish-mash of times and styles slightly confusing. There seemed to be a general 1950s America theme permeating the four acts, which was fine, but incongruous with the contemporary clothes of the main characters. There was, for example, an unaccountable silent character who appeared every now and again and who looked as if he’d either just come from a production of Grease or had found himself in the wrong theatre.
The set for Act I was good: a greyish, simple background, with a worn, old, red leather armchair and a stove furnishing the Bohemians’ accommodation, with a prominent motorbike included on the left. It was the next act’s set that seemed a little less successful: a sort of rotating 1950s diner. It wasn’t so much this as the painted background that I objected to: a huge, sentimental close-up of a man leaning over, about to kiss a woman. As if this weren’t bad enough, practicalities partly obscured this sickly-sweet image, with a light fixture and lamp hanging down on the man’s face, so it looked as if he had a prominent, black, squarish mole above his top lip (the light fixture), with something was hanging down from it (the lamp).
The approach of this Opera North production was clearly to bring out the humour of Puccini’s well–loved opera - something you don’t have to do for La boheme, but if you’re going to do it, do it well, which Opera North did. Seating Steven Page as the landlord Benoit on the tatty armchair before pushing it at speed towards the doorway and shoving the poor old boy off received a justified laugh from the audience, as did Marcello’s paintings in Act III, when he couldn’t get Musetta out of his mind. Two rows of paintings were hanging across the stage, like washing left out to dry, with the backs of the front row obscuring the row behind. Only a minute or two later did Marcello slowly lower the front row, revealing numerous duplicate black and white images of the lovely Sarah Fox (Musetta), each one with a primary colour background. Cross-dressing and a parody of Marilyn Monroe with the fan blowing up her dress in Act IV were also comically effective.
As far as the singing was concerned, I found the performance not at all poor but rather frustrating, not least because of Bülent Bezdüz’s Rodolfo. Bezdüz absolutely looked the part: with his long black hair and striking, Italianate, youthful good looks, he was visually convincing. The sound he produced was also wonderfully Mediterranean - when I could hear it. And that was the problem. It is not Rodolfo but Marcello who has the very first line in La boheme, singing about the Red Sea, before Rodolfo enters with “Nei cieli bigi guardo fumar dai mille comignoli Parigi”. As soon as he sung this line, my attention was already drawn to how much quieter he was than Marcello. Well, fair enough: maybe he’s saving it for “Che gelida manina”. Sadly, this wasn’t to be. The aria was secure in almost every way, but just so desperately underwhelming due to a lack of projection. Intonation, quality of tone (as far as I could tell), and phrasing were all fine, and top notes were reached without any strain and maintained without the slightest crack, though he rushed to his final top C, at the expense of ensemble with the orchestra. But volume was the real problem, and this was made embarrassingly apparent when any of the other singers sang in conversation with him. Unfortunately, this continued throughout. His acting as a young, care-free Bohemian was believable, but his interaction with Mimì, when they were searching for the key in Act I, and particularly in the Act III break-up, left me unmoved. Villazon, on the recent DVD film version (Axiom Films, 2008) may be a little exaggerated, but I’d rather have the sense of sheer desperation he portrays in this penultimate act, than the somewhat lackluster acting of Bezdüz.
Anne Sophie Duprels as Mimì faired better, though the orchestra sometimes swamped her lower register. I would have liked a little more subtlety in her tone, particularly in the first and third acts. One of the pitfalls on having grown up with the Karajan (Decca, 1976) and Beecham (EMI, 1956) recordings is that I have always been used to the beautiful simplicity of Freni, or even better, the sweetness of De Los Angeles. Duprels was neither simple, nor sweet. Nor was she a fragile, eighteen-year-old girl. At the risk of sounding like a world renowned Italian director, who has been in the press recently after making comments about a singer’s size and age, Duprels just didn’t look or sound like a Mimì. Dressed in rather unflattering plain black clothes with a bright red cardigan, her voice was firm, particularly in the higher register, but often too confident, failing to incorporate the character’s ever-looming mortality. “Si. Mi chiamano Mimì” suggested a strong feminist rather than a delicate flower. The build-up at “ma quado vien lo sgelo” was nicely judged, the strings of Opera North’s orchestra milking Puccini’s lush score for every last drop, but Duprels did some strange things with the dynamics each time she had that lovely phrase with a sustained top A, beginning loudly with a diminuendo about half-way through the top note each time. She didn’t quite have the vocal control to pull this off though, and instead of a magically quiet, sustained top A, the dynamic contrast wasn’t great enough to have the desired effect. Having said that, by the time we reached the final act, she seemed to embrace the sensitivities of the poor Mimì much better, and it must be said that her death scene was very well sung and acted.
Rodolfo and Mimì’s duets were well in tune, but she frequently over-powered him, and the dynamic imbalance in “O soave fanciulla, o dolce viso” was exacerbated by director Phyllida Lloyd’s bizarre decision to leave the two characters onstage (this may have been the decision of the revival director, Peter Relton). I have never seen this before. As a result, instead of an amorous, passionate drifting off into the distance, we saw every inch of Duprel’s considerable mouth as she belted out a top C, perfectly in tune but far from pianissimo, over Bezdüz’s relatively feeble and almost inaudible E.
Oddly, the stars of this perfromance were not Rodolfo and Mimì, but Marcello, sung by the superb Marcin Bronikowski, making an extremely impressive Opera North debut with his beautiful, rich baritone, and the equally wonderful Sarah Fox as Musetta, who was deliciously flirtatious throughout Act II, seducing me with every single note of her famous waltz. I also found her heartfelt scene of redemption in Act IV deeply moving, thanks not only to her beautiful singing, but also her excellent acting and stage presence. These two really did steal the show, and it would be fascinating to see this production again when Fox takes the role of Mimì.
In reviewing the recent La boheme at the ROH in December last year, one of my Opera Britannia colleagues mentioned Kostas Smoriginas as a particularly impressive Colline: “His vibrant bass voice was consistently velvety and graceful, and ironically, his funereal dirge to his soon-to-be pawned coat was one of the most tenderly sung and played moments of the evening.” I experienced an equally poignant portrayal of Colline from Frédéric Bourreau, and similarly, it was one of the most impressive vocal displays of the entire performance.
The Opera North orchestra played well for conductor Richard Farnes throughout, with an appropriately sumptuous, Puccinian string sound, and some characterful woodwind solo accompaniments. The adult and children’s choruses were also very good: ensemble was tight, intonation fine, and all the choreography was well organized.
Despite some reservations about the two main roles, and a few very minor gripes about the presentation, everything else in this performance came off very well indeed. The first-rate singing and acting of both Bronikowski and Fox in particular made this an enjoyable and memorable evening, and the comic elements provided an appropriate counterbalance to the narrative of the ill-fated lovers.