Monday 4 June 2012

La Bohème, Welsh National Opera, 1 June 2012

Millennium Centre, Cardiff

Mimi – Anita Hartig
Musetta – Kate Valentine
Rodolfo – Alex Vicens
Marcello – David Kempster
Schaunard – Gary Griffiths
Colline – David Soar

Annabel Arden (director)
Stephen Brimson Lewis (designs)
Tim Mitchell (lighting)
Nina Dunn (projections)
Philippe Giraudeau (choreography)

Chorus of the Welsh National Opera
Orchestra of the Welsh National Opera
Carlo Rizzi (conductor)

Puccini, I think it is fair to say, will never be my favourite composer, but I have always admired his craftsmanship, and find much of interest in his harmony and his orchestration. Even if I dislike the obvious emotional manipulation, I used to feel not entirely dissimilarly with respect to Strauss, and long ago shed most, if not all, my qualms about that. I remain irked by the obviousness of some of the writing, the lack at times of anything much beneath the surface, and that seems to me a particular problem with some, though not all, of La Bohème. Nevertheless, there is not a single work I have heard by Puccini that I have not found more interesting than anything by Verdi, let alone Donizetti.

When it came to the Welsh National Opera’s staging, I confess that I had failed to do my homework beforehand. Upon seeing Annabel Arden’s offering, I therefore initially assumed it to be a venerable old production, very much on its last legs and was astonished to discover that this was in fact the first night of a new production. It was allegedly updated to Paris just before the outbreak of the Great War, but frankly, I doubt that anyone would have noticed had it not been pointed out. Apparently, the different hats – I am not making this up – gave away the slight updating. Quite what the point was eluded me, especially if one required an advanced diploma in millinery studies to appreciate it. For really, this resembled on stage the most overtly ‘traditional’ production one could imagine. The size of the garret was frankly ludicrous: surely any director and designer would wish to go beyond Zeffirelli; it is not, after all, difficult to advance beyond the utterly mindless. And when one appears not to have the resources to put anything in the space, one ends up with Zeffirelli-lite.

More seriously, it was difficult to discern even the slightest glimmer of an idea in Arden’s approach. WNO might as well have stuck with what it had before. O for the directorial ingenuity integrity of a Peter Konwitschny to make itself felt in such repertoire… (Stefan Herheim has mounted a highly-regarded Bohème in Oslo.) It would have the added benefit of annoying, probably even scandalising, all those people who attend ‘the opera’ for all the wrong reasons. Doubtless they were appeased on this occasion. I suspect, however, that they would have been as mystified as I was as to why, in an otherwise hyper-‘traditional’ production, a man dressed as a monkey appeared at the Café Momus. As for the projections between scenes, they at best resembled a computer screen saver: a waste of time, effort, and doubtless money.

 Carlo Rizzi, a former Music Director, conducted ably enough, but this was not a memorable orchestral account. A considerable amount of first two acts sounded a little on the ‘light’ side, more akin to a certain school of Mendelssohn performance. That was doubtless partly a matter of the orchestra, which at times simply did not have the necessary reserves of string sound on which to fall back, though on other occasions, it acquitted itself rather well, the woodwind in particular. However, it was difficult not to long for the Vienna Philharmonic, and/or for Karajan. Rizzi’s pacing was fine for the most part, although the fourth act dragged, even if that is partly a matter of the score.

The ladies for the most part fared better than the gentlemen. (I am afraid I cannot offer a full cast list, since I did not buy a programme and WNO’s website only identifies the principals.) Anita Hartig was for the most part a touching Mimi. She certainly has a beautiful voice, though her tuning sometimes went a little awry. Kate Valentine’s Musetta was perhaps the most captivating portrayal, a slight edge, especially during the second act, differentiating her nicely from Mimi. Indeed, the lilt, expertly judged, to Valentine’s rendition of ‘Quando me’n vo’ imparted character and sheer enjoyment in equal measure. Increased warmth of tone during the fourth act was apt and telling. Alex Vicens’s Rodolfo was not bad, though at times it veered dangerously close to a not very successful, indeed considerably underpowered, parody of Pavarotti, the sobs irritating beyond measure. If Puccini’s music is to be taken seriously, then that sort of bad tradition really ought to be stamped upon. David Kempster’s Marcello was sung well enough, but it was difficult to overlook his relative maturity, appearing more like a kindly great-uncle than a young artist.

The principal disappointment, however, remained Arden’s staging, a missed opportunity indeed. I remain hopeful that my next Bohème, in Salzburg this summer, will offer more, or at least some, food for thought. Perhaps it will persuade me that there is more dramatic continuity than I have been able to discern so far; at any rate, it will have the Vienna Philharmonic, Daniele Gatti, Anna Netrebko, and a director whose words at least give the impression of having considered what relevance this dangerously sentimental opera might yet retain.