La Bohème by Giacomo Puccini – Glyndebourne to 29 October then touring to 26 November 2022. 4**** – Clare Colvin

A Gothic touch to Puccini’s tragic tale of young love facing hard reality

A chance detour while walking around the 14th arrondissement of Paris gave director Floris Visser the inspiration he needed for a new setting of La Bohème – which is, of course, one of the most frequently performed of all opera’s core repertoire. Behind an iron gate was a simple cobbled street that stretched way back then suddenly dipped down, so that people seemed to walk away and disappear as if over a bridge. When the director looked up and saw the street sign – Passage d’Enfer, passage to the underworld – he knew he had his image.

So death rather than love becomes the theme of the opera, envisaged in designer Dieuweke Van Reij’s monochrome set of a cobbled stone street vanishing into darkness, subtly lit by Alex Brok. The background scenes of students’ garret, Café Momus, and Barrière d’Enfer are minimally suggested in the stylised design. And Visser follows a clue hinted at in Puccini’s score of the sinister cry of the toy seller Parpignol (Peter Van Hulle) by adding to the singer’s role the silent part of a man in black who appears, to stalk and gradually encroach on Mimi who, alone of the students, can see him. Eventually the silent figure of Death draws her into the underworld, while her friends are talking among themselves, thus adding a haunting reminder of the difference between Mimi’s future and that of her young friends.

Visser updates the opera, based on the 1830s Paris of Henry Murger’s Scènes de la vie de Bohème, to 100 years later in the 1930s and 40s as seen in the black and white photographs by Brassaï and Weiss. In this first revival of the 2022 Glyndebourne Festival production, (revival director Simon Iorio) the excellent young cast is led by Gabriella Reyes as Mimi, singing with warmth of tone and urgency of feeling, her fragile hold on life symbolised by the flickering flame of the candle. She is well matched by tenor Bekhzod Davronov as an ardent and deeply felt Rodolfo. His realisation at the end that she has quietly slipped away is heart-rending.

The other students make their mark too with Luthando Qave as an ebullient Marcello the artist, William Thomas as a philosophical Colline, and Luvuyo Mbundu as dandified musician Schaunard. Soprano Mariam Battistelli strikes sparks as showgirl Musetta, on-off girlfriend of Marcello, while Darren Jeffery takes the double role of Musetta’s put-upon sugar-daddy Alcindoro, and the students’ abused landlord Benoît. Rory Macdonald conducts the Glyndebourne Tour Orchestra with energy, and the Glyndebourne chorus is in great form.

Tour dates for La Bohème (touring in repertoire with Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro) are Milton Keynes 2, 5 November; Canterbury 9, 12 November; Norwich 16, 19 November; Liverpool 26 November.

Conductor: Rory Macdonald

Director: Floris Visser

Revival director: Simon Iorio

Set designer: Dieuweke Van Riet

Costume designer: Jon Morrell

Choreographer: Pim Veulings

Lighting designer: Alex Book

Dramaturg: Klaus Bergisch

Production pictures: © Glyndebourne Productions Ltd. Photo: Bill Cooper

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