Welsh National Opera’s revival of Annabel Arden’s direction of La bohème, featuring four singers making their debuts, is a sensitive and, at times, bizarrely comic production performed with assurance and acted with an ardour that becomes immensely moving. It also brings fresh insights into a supposedly-innocent Mimi and a zany portrait of Parisian café society; the city’s rooftops and riverside locations projected in Tim Mitchell’s atmospheric lighting and Stephen Brimson Lewis’s designs.
A sparsely furnished garret in Act One did for the penniless and contemporarily-dressed quartet of students. Creating maximum contrast to this cheerless squalor is Act Two’s glitzy Café Momus, inhabited by an elegantly-clad Chorus, its Edwardian costumes recalling Puccini’s era. But it was the presence of two transvestites and a capering gorilla in a Savile Row suit that bemused the most. Was this an oblique reference to the 1895 Paris Exhibition? Whatever the reason, it’s a visual triumph, colourful spectacle enhanced by the energy of school children (not credited) and the ceremony of a military tattoo at its close. Austerity returns for the final Acts; a snowy tollgate and a return to the sombre garret (enlivened briefly by its duelling scene) beautifully backlit by a glowing sunset that, even before Mimi’s death, brought a lump to one’s throat.
Marina-Costa Jackson, as Mimi, made a strong impression, producing consistently bright tone and was compelling to watch whether coquettish or ravaged by her failing lungs. Her Mimi is not quite the vulnerable, innocent seamstress Puccini had created, but a more rounded, almost calculating character, bringing lustre to ‘Mi chiamano Mimi’ in Act One and a heartbreaking tenderness in Act Three. Dominick Chenes, as her poet-lover Rodolfo was not quite as believable yet possessed a clarity that occasionally glinted. ‘Che gelida manina’ was imposing and its facility only slightly marred by an unvarying tone and a fast vibrato at the top end.
Lauren Fagan was a feisty Musetta, generous of voice; Gary Griffiths, as the painter Marcello, was resplendent vocally and a necessary anchor in ensembles; and his two companions, Jihoon Kim, as the pipe-smoking philosopher Colline and Gareth Brymor John as the musician Schaunard were dependable, but needed more convincing projection. Comic turns by the bohemian students are done well, but greater characterisations would create more pathos in the closing scene which, even so, was heartbreaking.
Perhaps what impressed most was the control that Manlio Benzi had over the hardworking and highly responsive WNO Orchestra. His fluid reading with its well-judged tempos and attention to detail (especially dynamics) brought Puccini’s score vividly to life and made its emotional punch shattering.