Review of the 2021 Grange Park Opera: La Bohème
Grange Park Opera, the brainchild of impresario Wasfi Kani, has taken a forceful approach to the COVID-19 pandemic over the past year, seeing the opportunity in the challenge. They commissioned and performed a brand new work last summer on the clog, “A Feast in a time of Plague; They offered filmed versions of Britten’s “Owen Wingrave” and Ravel’s “Spanish Hour”. Now the company is returning to something approaching a normal season with Verdi’s “Falstaff” last week and now a revival of Stephen Medcalf’s production of Puccini’s “La Bohème,” based on “Scenes from the Life of bohemian “by Henri Murger.
Medcalf’s production takes an inquisitive look at the work to highlight the political and class tensions that lurk in Puccini’s screenplay. The serialization of the adventures of the Latin Quarter of Murger was interrupted by the revolution of 1848 in Paris. The climax of act two is normally a triumphant theatrical performance, with chorus and fanfare reconnecting the musical and dramatic threads of the last twenty minutes, sending the audience merrily humming to the intermission. In Medcalf’s vision, the poor of Paris seem to invade Café Momus to deploy tricolor and a banner proclaiming that “Only the people are sovereign”.
The military tattoo of the last bars takes on a tougher mood, a moment of populist antagonism that seethes under the comedic brilliance of Alcindoro’s humiliation. It’s a disturbing and incisive directorial coup, and it brilliantly disrupts our emotional connection with the characters at the center of the opera by expanding our sense of its social world. The overall effect is to bring critical astringency and irony to an opera that too often falls into a sweet sentiment, especially in lavish heirloom productions that refuse to look beyond the sparkling romanticism of its setting. Parisian.
This slight thrill sets the mood perfectly for the opening of act three, the so-called ‘Barrière d’Enfer’ on the fringes of Paris. The scene of the guards and customs officers, who crudely inspect the sweepers and egg sellers who wish to enter the city, is too often just a backdrop for what is to follow. Instead, we get real meaning, in the harshness of the men’s choir, and the guard that hangs out at the back of the dark stage as the audience emerges from their picnics, the poverty and repression that weigh on King Louis-Philippe Paris. Karl Marx, of course, lived in Paris in the 1840s, with the anarchist Mikhail Bakunin.
The show was reblocked in its entirety by wake-up call director Lynne Hockney to allow for social distancing and other COVID-related restrictions. It was done with such elegance and staging that you hardly notice that the people are separated; he even manages, sometimes, to make balanced and engaging scene images (the Act one scene with the owner Benoît is an example). The act four comedy is wildly hilarious and makes a perfect, bitter film for the tragedy that unfolds. Throughout the movement, the movement is mostly natural and unfussy – indeed, it fits to fill the scene from acts one and four, which is entirely occupied by the gypsy apartment and would otherwise appear a bit overly large.
But then again, how real is “verism” supposed to be? “Bohème” is an opera synonymous with the term, but so full of staging and drama – this is a group of artists, after all – that it surely raises the question. Medcalf’s version doubles that by opening the show with the four friends entering into top hats and frock coats, which they put away in the dressing room and swapped for poor clothes. Jamie Vartan’s designs dictate that even the outdoor scenes take place “inside” their attic – literally, as aristocrats, this is their world, ultimately. In Musetta’s waltz, Schaunard overturns his piano to accompany him to the cafe.
Their poverty is simply for the spectacle, which is Murger’s most powerful and difficult borrowing in production. It culminates in a truly devastating ending, which pulls the emotional carpet under the audience’s feet. As Mimì lies dead on their makeshift bed, the four simply put on their hats and coats and exit the room, only Rodolfo offering a distressed look back. Mimì’s life is simply not worth mourning.
A solid cast
Ailish Tynan’s Mimì is the most outstanding vocal actor, delivering a performance of remarkable control and sensitivity, with flawless technique. His playing is sober but judged with acuity, reflected in a voice that can sparkle and shine in the most intimate moments of the opera. There is a lot of glissando, but all deployed with taste and tenderness. A delightfully floating top C at the very end of the first act, as she stepped off the stage, was a real vocal twist. His closing monologue in act four was heartbreaking; the same goes for her duet with Rodolfo in act three.
Luis Chapa’s Rodolfo was much more mixed. A good actor who has convincingly moved on the stage, it seems like he will take some time to adjust to the role (this is his first outing as Rodolfo). He has a wide vibrato that often occluded the text and his top was ripped and edgy, with a rather coarse slide to his top A in “O soave fanciulla”. They may just be swings from the first night, as the vocals in act three were relaxed and lyrical, with fullness and warmth coming through the vocals.
Hye-Youn Lee, as Musetta, has a bright and incisive voice, the occasional harshness of which rather suited her self-confidence and willingness to strut for her own ends; this was offset by a haunting dark low register in the very last moments of act four, another musical highlight of the evening.
William Dazeley’s Marcello is finely sung, with a weariness and lived-in voice quality that communicates his cynicism and exasperation, whether it’s handling Rodolfo or Musetta – even if some of his gestures seem a bit exaggerated at times. It will surely relax as the race continues. He was backed by a richly voiced Hill in Emyr Wyn Jones, whose “Vecchia zimarra” was a calmly sad moment of pathos and longing – even though Medcalf’s production casts a shadow over the boys’ expressions of cuteness. Andrew Shore doubled as Benedict and Alcindoro, and was effortlessly buffoonish, as one would expect from such a seasoned singer actor.
Another notable feature was Stephen Barlow’s direction of the BBC Concert Orchestra. The latter is a reputedly versatile band, but they have a special knack for film music and soundtrack recording. This ability was evident in the show; the orchestra was in its most descriptive and responsive element, telling Puccini’s story with luscious Hollywood strings and crisp toy store music in act two. Barlow has a superb understanding of the narrative push and pull of the score, shaping musical paragraphs with ease and moving energetically through its transitions. This inventive and thoughtful production refreshes the emotional core of opera by being ruthless with its sentiment.