Phyllida Lloyd’s production of La Boheme, now astonishingly nearly 17 years old, is the sort of thing that gives updating a good name. The 1950s was a pretty good time for Bohemians and much more familiar to us than Henry Murger’s world of the mid-19th century. Lloyd’s production is so convincing that you half-expect to find Juliette Greco appear from the shadows. Witty details abound, such as the succession of Warhol-like identical images of Musetta that signify Marcello’s continuing devotion.
As revived by Peter Relton, the production in Anthony Ward’s inventive designs fully exploits the individual character of each scene. Act 2 in the Café Momus is a master-stroke of brilliantly simple staging, with the scene defined and re-defined by the movements of a monster banquette, a disciplined but uninhibited children’s chorus and Paul Rendall’s Parpignol, the toy-seller, doing his best to steal the show. But Act 3, ominous and film noirish, and the “naughty boys” interludes with the four Bohemians are equally well-judged, and the final moments are unaffectedly moving.
It’s impossible, seeing the production yet again, to re-capture the glorious surprise of its first staging, but the freshness remains in the performance; everything is still in place to make this, in its own terms, a perfectly judged interpretation. However, the casting of this revival is rather uneven.
Opera North has taken a pan-European casting policy, with only the excellent Anne Sophie Duprels a regular at Leeds. The outstanding performance comes from the fine Polish baritone Marcin Bronikowski who brings total authority to Marcello vocally, plus a relaxed acting style that radiates humour, sincerity and warmth. Alongside him Bulent Bezduz is more problematic, despite a career founded on performances of Rodolfo and Alfredo, the parallel role in La Traviata. Of suitably youthful and romantic appearance, fielding an elegant lyric tenor, he often sounds underpowered and under strain in more dramatic passages and struggles with the essentially naturalistic style of acting Lloyd and Relton require. At his best in tender passages in Act 3, he still fails to attain the chemistry that Duprels and Bronikowski generate (apparently effortlessly) in the same scene. From that point Duprels’ assured, occasionally harsh Mimi in the opening acts becomes genuinely affecting, a subtle and nuanced reading without a hint of melodrama.
Though generating plenty of emotional intensity in the final scene, Sarah Fox is not really convincing as Musetta: she has all the notes, but not enough of the coquetry. Frederic Bourreau (Colline) and Quirijn de Lang (Schaunard) are spirited members of the Bohemian foursome and Steven Page completes a memorable double as Benoit and Alcindoro. Seedily amusing as the Rigsby of the 5th arrondissement, he reappears as a model of outraged dignity, though the hand-on-heart collapse at the Momus bill is rather overdone as an Act 2 curtain.
Richard Farnes’ conducting is alert to every change and contrast in the score, full of fun and pathos – especially in the beautifully paced final scene.