Thursday, February 19, 2009

La Bohème at the London Coliseum

My first experience of live opera was directing Gilbert and Sullivan for secondary school productions, which hardly counts as they're 'operettas'. My colleague and musical director assured me, though, that they contained all the musical elements of serious opera. Since then, apart from some amateur productions, I've mainly listened to arias on CD or watched operas taped from TV.

Recently I saw a film of 'La Bohème' with Pavarotti as a most unconvincing poet, despite his long scarf and Dylan-style hat. So I was really looking forward to this live professional performance, lured into parting with £19 by a tax rebate and the name of the director, Jonathan Miller. I'd seen his startling 'Mikado' on film.

Last night's exerience was quite different. For a start, the Coliseum's lift, complete with liveried attendant, whisked me back in memory to the old P&O hotel in Penang. At least she just had to press a button, not crank a handle.
There was a lot of excitement in the crowd and the auditorium was as kitsch as you could wish for, with the name Coliseum emblazoned in gold on dark velvet swags flanked by gilded fairground steeds galloping straight for the dress circle. The balcony seats were just about do-able for a couple of hours with an interval, only about twice as wide as those upholstered banquettes you get to lean against on commuter trains, but the rake is steep so there's a good view. The acoustics were fine and I thought that I heard as much as anyone in the stalls.

'This is the life that I treasure,
Writing poems for pleasure ...'

is a sentiment that must make this a writers' favourite opera,with its theme of destitute young artists, troubled romance and tragic death.

There were lots of times when the English lines seemed awkwardly stretched to fit the allocated notes, distorting the intonation. Given the excellent surtitles -none of those nonsensical side-titles you sometimes get with Chinese opera- it seems a shame not to have the original language.

Alfie Boe as Rodolfo sounded a bit weak to me and reminded me of Joseph Locke , but the other principals were fine, with piercing high notes from Mimi and Musetta that easily soared above the full-on conducting of Martin Fitzpatrick. Mimi was sung by substitute Michelle Walton instead of Melody Moore, and received well-deserved strong applause for her performance. Roland Wood's Marcello, the painter in love with skittish Musetta, was solidly dependable. I suspect this role is as important as Mercutio's in 'Romeo and Juliet'.

I loved Jonathan Miller's recreation of a film-inspired 1930s Paris resembling Cartier-Bresson photos, and the set designed by Isabella Bywater. This allowed for a garret, the Momus cafe and even sidestreets with easy adjustment of walls on turntables. The snowy street scene in the sombre second half came off particularly well. I haven't seen enough of other versions to miss the colourful cafe gaiety that some critics say the production lacks. Besides, the music supplies all the emotion.

R thought I was optimistic to set out with only £5 to cover the cost of a programme, but at £4.50 it was not only under budget but full of excellent articles. As well as the expected synopsis and cast biographies I found out the opera originated as set of magazine short stories in 1845, 'Scènes de la vie de boheme' by Henri Murger. It also featured Puccini's struggles to bring the work to fruition, histories of 'bohemian' lifestyles and some great black and white photos of Parisians in the 1930s.

How odd to watch scenes of destitution in such opulent surroundings. But I guess that happens a lot with live opera.
La Bohème:
The Coliseum:

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