La Boheme – Giacomo Puccini, WNO, Birmingham Hippodrome, 9 – 11 November 2022 then on tour, 4**** David Gray & Paul Gray 

The acid test of any production of La Boheme is how well it handles the difficult last scene. This is structurally a mirroring of the first scene – frivolous, boyish high jinks, followed by an episode of strong emotion. In the first scene the emotional element is Rudolfo and Mimi meeting and falling in love. In the last scene it’s Mimi coming back to Rudolfo to die. The boyish high jinks can seem repetitious and forced. This is because they are. And whereas in the first scene Puccini delivers ravishing love music; in this last scene he delivers nostalgia and sentimentality by rehashing the big tunes from the rest of the opera. It can be a bit mawkish. 

But this is because many productions miss how Puccini surrounds the death scene with a healthy dose of harsh practicality. These characters live hand to mouth, surviving from day to day. Here, they face death with the same pragmatism with which they face life, selling what is not immediately essential, buying medicine, calling the doctor, looking out for one another, getting by. All of which presents an antidote to the sentiment, grounding the action making it more real – this is verismo after all. Because this cast is so well characterized, this element of the action comes through strongly. And the result is more emotionally charged than would have been the case with a less thoroughly realized set of characters. 

A powerful ending to an otherwise slightly uneven performance. The action in the first scene lacks the spontaneous freshness called for. Tempos in the two big arias are sluggish so that, although beautifully sung, they come across as collections of ideas rather than cohesive flows of thought and feeling. 

Music and action gather pace and conviction thereafter. The bustle of Parisian life is nicely captured in the second scene. Aoife Miskelly is a seductive Musetta and delivers a glittering Quando m’en vo which builds to a thrilling climax.  

And at the end of the day the main attraction of La Boheme is a seemingly endless succession of big, emotive melodies beautifully sung. In this respect the cast certainly delivers. As Rudolfo, tenor Jung Soo Yun sings with exquisite lyricism throughout. Elin Prichard’s uses her burnished voice and some delicate pianissimos to capture the fragility of Mimi. Rodion Pogossov, as Marcello has a fluid, natural stage presence and an impressively full-bodied tone. They all blend wonderfully well as singers and actors in the third scene quartet. 

Conductor, Pietro Rizzo, stirs in generous passion so that the orchestra seems at times to seeth with emotion, but this is never at the cost of precision. The ensemble in the pit is tight, providing a rich cushion of sound from which the singers above take flight. 

Cast 

Mimi – Elin Pritchard 

Rudolfo – Jung Soo Yun 

Marcello – Rodion Pogossov 

Musetta – Aoife Miskelly 

Schaunard – Benson Wilson 

Coline – David Shipley 

Benoit – Howard Kirk 

Alcindoro – Martin Lloyd 

Sargeant – Alastair Moore 

Parpignol – Huw Llywelyn 

Customes Official – Laurence Cole 

WNO Orchestra & Chorus 

Creatives  

Conductor – Pietro Rizzo 

Original Director – Annabel Arden 

Revival Director – Caroline Chaney 

Designers – Stephen Brimson Lewis, Nina Dunn 

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