La Bohème (Opera North)
November 5 2019
Theatre Royal, Nottingham
Review: William Ruff
Opera North’s La Bohème: squalor has never been so beautiful
Take four twenty-something males with limited money-management skills. Give them a garret to share plus lots of passion and energy. And what have you got? Well, lots of squalor for one thing, as well as one of the world’s most popular operas, especially when you throw a beautiful young girl with TB into the mix.
Squalid may not be everyone’s idea of what opera should look like but Director Phyllida Lloyd and Designer Anthony Ward really get to the heart of what Puccini’s world is all about. Opera North’s production of La Bohème has become a classic (now 26 years old). It may not be pretty but it faces the grim realities of poverty head-on in a world of cruel inequality, the rich flaunting their luxuries whilst a young gig-economy seamstress dies before her life (and love) have barely got started.
The power of ON’s version lies in its realistic detail. The cast are all the right age and have that look of vulnerability about them. The squalor is artfully designed and sharply contrasted with the Café Momus scene in which not only the friends spend their money but clearly Opera North does too. The Chorus is on splendid form, each member fully individual with (one senses) a full and colourful back story, whether they’re nuns, sailors or families having some festive fun. And the children act and sing their hearts out too.
At the story’s beating heart are Rudolpho (Thomas Atkins) and Mimi (Katie Bird). Their famous Act One duet is a good example of less being more: understated, vulnerable, natural, growing from the situation and avoiding anything which smacked of the operatic set-piece. Their performance holds the audience in its grip from its intensely romantic beginning to its painfully tragic end.
This is a remarkably consistent cast in terms of fine singing and acting talent. Yuriy Yurchuk, Emyr Wyn Jones and Henry Neill play the four artistic friends, as strong in comic banter as they are in the opera’s heart-breaking final moments. And Samantha Clarke is a spikily vivacious Musetta.
Conductor Renato Balsadonna’s pacy, sensitive handling of the orchestra matches the overall vision of an opera where love and loss are linked by the most fragile of threads.
Yuriy Yurchak Marcello
Thomas Atkins Rudolpho
Emyr Wyn Jones Colline
Henry Neill Schaunard
Jeremy Peaker Benoit
Katie Bird Mimi
Samantha Clarke Musetta
Chorus of Opera North
Opera North Youth Company
Orchestra of Opera North conducted by Renato Balsadonna
Director Phyllida Lloyd
Set and Costume Designer Anthony Ward
Revival Director Michael Barker-Caven