Grange Park Opera 2021 Review: La Bohème

An unsentimental and incisive ‘Bohème’ offers much food for thought

By Benjamin Poore

Grange Park Opera, the brainchild of go-getting impresario Wasfi Kani, has taken an energetic approach to the COVID-19 pandemic over the last year, seeing opportunity in challenge. They commissioned and performed a brand new work last summer on the hoof, “A Feast in a time of Plague;” they have offered filmed versions of Britten’s “Owen Wingrave” and Ravel’s “L’heure Espagnole.” Now the company returns 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 “Scènes de la vie de bohème” by Henri Murger.

An Innovative Production

Medcalf’s production casts a searching eye over the work to spotlight the political and class tensions lurking in Puccini’s scenario. The serialization of Murger’s Latin Quarter adventures was interrupted by the 1848 revolution in Paris. The climax of Act two is normally a triumphant theatrical spectacle, chorus and marching band tying up the musical and dramatic threads of the last twenty minutes, sending the audience humming gaily out to the interval. In Medcalf’s vision, the poor of Paris seem to invade the Cafe Momus to unfurl tricolores and a banner proclaiming that ‘Only the People are Sovereign’.

The military tattoo of the final bars takes on a harder mood, a moment of populist antagonism that seethes beneath the comic brio of Alcindoro’s humiliation. It is an unsettling and incisive directorial masterstroke, and brilliantly disturbs our emotional connection with the characters at the center of the opera by widening our sense of its social world. The overall effect is to bring some critical astringency and irony to an opera that all too often lapses into sugary sentiment, particularly in lavish heritage productions that refuse to look beyond the sparkling romance of its Parisian setting.

This slight chill sets the mood perfectly for the opening of Act three, the so-called ‘Barrière d’Enfer’ on the fringes of Paris. The scene with guards and customs officers, who roughly inspect the sweepers and women selling eggs who wish to enter the city, is all too often mere scene-setting for what is to come. Instead, we have a real sense, in the roughness of the men’s chorus singing, and the guard who loiters at the back of the darkened stage as the audience file in from their picnics, of the poverty and repression that hung over King Louis-Phillipe’s Paris. Karl Marx, of course, lived in Paris during the 1840s, along with anarchist Mikhail Bakunin. 

The show has been re-blocked in its entirety by revival director Lynne Hockney to allow for social distancing and other COVID related restrictions. This has been achieved with such elegance and stagecraft that one hardly notices that people are apart; it even contrives, at times, in making balanced and engaging stage pictures (the Act one scene with landlord Benoît is a case in point). The comedy of Act four is extravagantly hilarious and makes a perfect, bitter, foil for the tragedy that supervenes. Movement throughout is mostly natural and unfussy – indeed it does well to fill out the stage in Acts one and four, which is taken up entirely by the flat of the Bohemians and would otherwise appear somewhat exaggeratedly large.

But then again, how real is “verismo” meant to be? “Bohème” is an opera synonymous with the term, but so full of stagey-ness and playacting – it is about a group of artists, after all – that it surely begs the question. Medcalf’s version doubles down on this by opening the show with the four friends entering in top hats and frock coats, which they put away in the dressing box and swap for poor clothes. Jamie Vartan’s designs dictate that even exterior scenes happen ‘inside’ their garrett – in a very literal sense, as aristocrats, it is their world, in the end. In Musetta’s waltz, Schaunard wheels his piano over to accompany her in the café.

Their poverty is simply for show, which is the most powerful and challenging borrowing made from Murger’s novel in the production. It culminates in a truly devastating ending, which pulls the emotional rug from under the audience’s feet. As Mimì lies dead on their makeshift bed, the four simply don their hats and coats and walk out the room, with only Rodolfo offering a distressed look back. Mimì’s life simply isn’t worth mourning.

A Solid Cast

Ailish Tynan’s Mimì is the most vocally outstanding cast member, delivering a performance of remarkable control and sensitivity, with faultless technique. Her acting is understated but acutely judged, reflected in a voice that can shimmer and glow in the opera’s most intimate moments. There is much glissando, but all deployed tastefully and tenderly. An exquisitely floated top C at the very end of Act one, as she moved offstage, was a true vocal coup de theatre. Her closing monologue in Act four was heartbreaking; so too her duet with Rodolfo in Act three.

Luis Chapa’s Rodolfo was much more mixed. A fine actor who moved convincingly about the stage, vocally it sounds like he will need some time to settle into the role (this is his first outing as Rodolfo). He has a wide vibrato that often occluded the text and his top felt snatched and nervy, with a rather coarse slide up to his top A in “O soave fanciulla.” These may simply be first night wobbles, as the singing in Act three was relaxed and lyrical, with fullness and warmth across the voice.

Hye-Youn Lee, as Musetta, has a bright and incisive voice, whose occasional hardness rather suited her bratty confidence and willingness to strut her stuff to her own ends; this was offset by a hauntingly sombre lower register in the very final moments of Act four, another musical highlight of the evening.

William Dazeley’s Marcello was finely sung, with a weariness and lived-in quality to the voice that communicated his cynicism and exasperation, whether in handling Rodolfo or Musetta – even if some his gestures felt a little overblown at times. This will surely relax as the run continues. He was supported by a rich-voiced Colline in Emyr Wyn Jones, whose “Vecchia zimarra” was a quietly mournful moment of pathos and wistfulness – even if Medcalf’s production casts a shadow over the boys’ expressions of kindness. Andrew Shore doubled up as Benoît and Alcindoro, and was effortlessly buffoonish, as might well be expected from such an experienced singing actor.

Stephen Barlow’s conducting of the BBC Concert Orchestra was another standout feature. The latter is a famously versatile band, but has a special gift for film music and recording soundtracks. This ability was evident in the show; the orchestra was in its most descriptive, responsive element, telling Puccini’s story with luscious Hollywood strings and crisp toyshop music in Act two. Barlow has a superb grasp of the narrative push and pull of the score, shaping the musical paragraphs with ease and moving energetically through its transitions. This inventive, thoughtful production refreshes the emotional core of the opera by being ruthless with its sentiment. 


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