Opera Scotland

Bohème 2017Scottish Opera

Read more about the opera Bohème

New light on an old favourite

The Bohème production team from Canada - Renaud Doucet (direction), André Barbe (design) and Guy Simard (lighting) were facing the challenge of freshening up a masterpiece yet one that is sometimes treated with scant respect. They were almost entirely successful in taking a novel approach to a work that can sometimes threaten to become too familiar for its own good.

All the advance publicity had emphasised the 1920s element within a Parisian environment between the wars when the American cabaret singer Josephine Baker was all the rage. Their opening gambit was a clever surprise, however. The curtain rose in silence to reveal a street corner, crowded with locals and tourists in modern dress complete with modern electronic gadgetry, mobiles and headsets. A singer on a platform to the right delivers a couple of cabaret numbers, accompanied by an accordionist. An emaciated female looks on, fascinated as she launches into a dream of the glamorous past. Is she a projection of the doomed Mimì? As the orchestra strikes up, the crowd disperses and Rodolfo and Marcello appear, their furniture apparently in the street, but the subtle lighting quickly lets us concentrate on the essentials of the garret with its single door and everything else becomes atmospheric background.

The scene changes are easily achieved. For the café the chorus appear and the attic furniture is discreetly removed as the tables are set out. Simple strings of lights and neon frames for posters provide party-style illumination. On a crowded stage there are lively elements of the fairground, including hobby-horses and stilt-walkers. After the interval the same basic set, stripped of furnishings, and with market stalls closed up, makes an effectively bleak setting even without the usual snow. The buildings then fade easily into the background for the last act - a drop curtain between these scenes allows us to concentrate on the subtle guest accordionist (Djordje Gajic) giving us a reminder of Musetta's waltz from a stage box. All very clever and surprisingly simple, given how busy the stage looks when required.

The cast was generally highly satisfying, without anyone particularly standing out - which may be a very good thing in this archetypal ensemble opera. Hye-Youn Lee was an excellent Butterfly here recently. and her Mimì was a touching interpretation, while still having plenty of voice to ride the orchestra when required. 'Donde lieta uscì' in the third act went particularly well.

Luis Gomes confirmed the positive impression he made earlier in the season - he has an attractively lyrical tenor and sang with style. He is also a subtle actor. Jonathan Best has worked with the company over many years, frequently singing Colline in that old Moshinsky staging. He appeared to get a good deal of pleasure from the contrast in his characterizations of seedy landlord and ageing dandy, and the voice is still in good shape.

The rest of the cast was essentially unknown. The new Musetta, Jeanine De Bique, was given extra prominence through her 'Josephine Baker' act at the start of the piece, and she did everything required of her to show that Musetta was a lively and ambitious creature who still had some heart. Her Waltz Song was beautifully delivered. David Stout made a thoroughly convincing Marcello, flaring up at the slightest hint that Musetta was up to her old games. In the roles of the two other students, Damien Pass and Božidar Smiljaniƈ were also newcomers, both played as relative youngsters and well characterized, Schaunard's own love for Mimì prominently on display.

The very popularity of La bohème means that we become used to hearing it in reduced versions - chamber orchestras, solo piano and other arrangements in between, all of which can work quite enjoyably on their own terms. However it is salutary to hear Puccini's fabulous orchestration from a full-size band occasionally. Stuart Stratford sometimes took an unusually leisurely pace for the music, and the results were superb, with a clarity and balance to the sound that was beautiful to hear. We were treated to details like the gurgling clarinet at 'O soave fanciulla' that we often miss - lots of nice little touches on the harp.

At this Sunday matinee, the third performance, Stratford was also able to keep the volume at a level that allowed the singers, some with quite light voices, both to project and introduce some subtlety of phrasing.

This reading will undoubtedly mature during a run of sixteen performances, and offers a substantial challenge for the Turin company that will give the piece further exposure at the forthcoming 2017 Edinburgh Festival.

Performance Cast

Marcello a painter

David Stout

Rodolfo a poet

Luis Gomes (Exc May 16; Jun 8, 13)

Christopher Turner (May 16; Jun 8, 13)

Colline a philosopher

Damien Pass

Schaunard a musician

Božidar Smiljaniƈ

Benoit the students' landlord

Jonathan Best

Mimì a seamstress

Hye-Youn Lee (Exc May 16; Jun 8, 13)

Nadine Livingston (May 16; Jun 8, 13)

Parpignol a toy vendor

Matthew Kimble

Musetta a grisette

Jeanine de Bique

Alcindoro a wealthy follower of Musetta

Jonathan Best

Custom-house Sergeant

Simon Hannigan

Official

Jonathan Sedgwick

Performance DatesBohème 2017

Map List

Theatre Royal, Glasgow | Glasgow

9 May, 19.15 12 May, 19.15 14 May, 16.00 16 May, 19.15 18 May, 19.15 20 May, 19.15

His Majesty's Theatre, Aberdeen | Aberdeen

25 May, 19.15 27 May, 19.15

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Festival Theatre, Edinburgh | Edinburgh

31 May, 19.15 4 Jun, 16.00 6 Jun, 19.15 8 Jun, 19.15 10 Jun, 19.15

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Eden Court Theatre | Inverness

13 Jun, 19.15 15 Jun, 19.15 17 Jun, 19.15

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