Glyndebourne Festival Opera Review 2022: La Bohème

Floris Visser’s Inventive New Production is an Atmospheric Triumph

By Benjamin Poore
Photo credit: © Glyndebourne Productions Ltd.

“La bohème”, as the archetypal verismo opera, tends to resist stagings that take it much beyond the confines of nineteenth-century Paris, and indeed non-naturalistic approaches to the work. (Audiences tend to resist them too.) The two most successful in London recently have been John Copley’s recently retired version at the Royal Opera House – a spectacular heritage production to the letter – and Jonathan Miller’s down the road at English National Opera, which relocates the action to the 1930s but still cleaves to an immaculately rendered realism. Richard Jones’ recent version at Covent Garden has been doggedly revived though tends towards the emotionally chilly and has brought few new ideas to the work. 

The most adventurous productions in recent years have probably belonged to Calixto Bieito, who frames it as a kind of terrible grief-dream in the hospital where Mimì succumbs to cancer, and Claus Guth’s controversial but visionary Tarkovsky-inspired setting of it…on the moon.

Floris Visser’s new production of this classic at Glyndebourne Festival Opera this year hardly goes as far, but proves itself one of the most striking takes on the piece in years, brilliantly designed and staged with breathtaking imagination and focus. It is Glyndebourne’s first new production in 20 years. 

A Chilling & Dark Paris

Dieuweke Van Reij’s’ set is simply a cobbled road, curving down into abyssal darkness; a pile of corrugated iron chairs and a few tables are the only furniture for Came Momus in Act two; it is inspired by the photographs of Brassaï’s Paris in the 1920s; particularly the streets around the Barriere d’Enfer and the catacombs, as if to underline the opera’s mortal trajectory. Visual and cinematic references are impactful and elegant; dramaturg Klaus Bertisch and Visser have really done their homework. 

It is chillingly understated, and gorgeously lit by Alex Brok in this resolutely non-realist production. In one chilling coup de théâtre in Act two, the chorus turn the menus over at Café Momus to menace Mimì with a ghostly image of her mortality. The high walls and tight design keep the drama taut and confined, giving it a terrifying feeling of inevitably and claustrophobia. 

There are intimations of a starkly existentialist worldview: Marcello and Rodolfo linger in the bleak space like Vladimir and Estragon on the road in “Waiting for Godot;” Colline’s costume (Jon Morrell) suggests Jean-Paul Sartre; Marcello’s painting of the Red Sea looks like something from the postwar avant-garde. It feels like a world on the precipice – the landlord Benoit (is he even their “real” landlord?) is a staggering drunk, smashing a bottle against the wall; the soldiers of Act three make rough use of the sex workers at the entrance to the city. A certain mechanical chill comes from Rodolfo’s use of a typewriter rather than pen and paper, though he does clack away somewhat distractingly in “O soave fanciulla” – though perhaps this disruption is the point.

The main intervention from Visser is Christopher Lemmings’ Death – a character who stalks magnetically, silently, following Mimì everywhere. The character suggests Ingmar Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal” and the film “Meet Joe Black.” This shouldn’t work – sledgehammer meet nut – but Lemmings’ restrained presence is just understated enough to give her scenes with Rodolfo a terrifying edge. In the very final bars he takes Mimì by the hand and they walk slowly upstage into the dark. A breathtaking and distinctive ending to an opera we know all too well. 

The uncanny quality is heightened by the fact that Lemmings sings Parpignol in Act two, doling out red balloons to the children – a passing reference to Albert Lamorisse’s 1956 film – which really underlines the feeling that we’re all just living in the shadow of the reaper. The balloons themselves exemplify what makes the show so compelling – a sudden burst of colour which has huge impact in this monochromatic staging, much like the sickly, funereal pink flowers that adorn the piles of iron chairs in Mimì and Rodolfo’s Act three encounter. It is another example of decluttering: a simple graphic prop instead of a panoply of toys and period affectations, keeping our focus on what is already a complex scene. 

Visser’s greatest success is its clarity when it comes to distilling what the opera is actually about – a confrontation with mortality that seldom in performances lingers with such weight and portent. The simple act of having Death onstage during Rodolfo and Mimì’s tender Act one duet – a moment that most of the time lapses into dreary sentiment – completely transforms the dynamic of the scene, putting a special and tragic pressure on their blooming ardour. Visser’s production manages to be both spectacular and economical by turns, letting Puccini’s score do much of the emotional work whilst also conjuring an evocative and fresh setting. 



Show-stopping Debut Amid Solid Turns

Yaritza Véliz sings Mimì, a former Jette Parker Young Artist at the Royal Opera House and here making her debut at Glyndebourne. And what a debut it is – she is an artist with remarkable control and dexterity across the voice, and using soft-grained pianissimi and delicately-sculpted gestures to channel huge amounts of pathos. “Mi chiamano Mimì” was wonderfully velvety and even – consistency in color and tone was one of her many strengths that evening. In livelier moments – the Act two sequence – Véliz pops and pings through the texture. The very final scene with Rodolofo – when she sang the line “bella come un tramonto” (“as beautiful as a sunset”) was heartbreaking, followed by a feather soft reprise of “Mi chiamano Mimì.” 

Sehoon Moon, who was scheduled to sing later in the run, stepped in for Long Long in the role of Rodolfo, who was unable to perform owing to visa issues. Moon’s trenchant tenor suits nonchalant Rodolfo, and there is a gleam to his playful voice that, again, suggests a life-force at odds with the opera’s drift towards darkness. “Che gelida manina” had a boyish tenderness that marked a journey into weightier, steelier shades by his very final tortured cry of “Mimì.” At the very upper reaches of the voice – anything above a G or so – he felt pressed and the sound was a little squeezed, losing the flexibility and color that he otherwise showcased throughout. 

Daniel Scofield sang a rough and ready Marcello, an obstreperous drunk constantly in the middle of a meltdown. Vocally he brought plenty of growl and coarseness – all within character – but shone in the lyrical breakout at the climax of Act two, turning his dark instrument to real nobility on his top E.

Vuvu Mpofu sang Musetta; in 2019 she won the John Christie Glyndebourne Award. She is more brash and crystalline than Véliz, and is superb vocal foil, leaning into the character’s swagger and polishing notes above the stave to a fine gleam in Act two; the weeping in her voice in the final sequence of Act four was touching indeed. 

Luthando Qave was an effervescent Schaunard, an extravagant showman – perhaps even somewhat shamanic in his life-affirming energies – and navigated Puccini’s nosebleed tessitura with style, never lapsing into shouting and maintaining a classy sense of line. His story about the dead parrot was a highlight (it is easy to forget how smartly Puccini shadows tragedy with comedy in the piece.)

Ivo Stanchev’s Colline offered a tender song to his coat, finding subtle shades and human warmth in his short spotlight moment. Richard Suart made a characteristically vivid turn as Benoît.

Jordan de Souza dashed through the early scenes with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, infusing the horseplay then (and at the top of Act four) with verve, offering a highly responsive, sparkling commentary from the pit. The following scenes were handled with tenderness, with sensuous string playing and remarkable warmth in brass and woodwind; de Souza coordinated the challenging ensembles of Act two with ease and elan, keeping the orchestra’s energies under control. In his hands it is music that strives, like a fervently beating heart, against the forces of death and time, rendered with such power in Visser’s vision.

It will tour in the autumn; one senses the production will run and run. 


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