La Boheme, the new co-production from Scottish Opera and Theater St Gallen (of Switzerland) brings Giacomo Puccini’s masterpiece to the Festival Theatre stage in Edinburgh. In this production, our timeless story of penniless young lovers doomed to soon be forever apart is set in Paris in the 1920s jazz age of Josephine Baker and “The Lost Generation” of writers, poets, artists and idea rich but worldly poor bohemians who made the city their own after the first world war.
La Boheme is one of the great love stories of literature and opera, and a great part of that is down to the undeniable genius of Puccini and his music and an inspired libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, but equal credit must go to the original source material based on Scènes de la Vie de Bohème by Henri Murger. All of our principal characters here are based on real life identifiable people in the life of Murger, and this grounding in realism is what gives La Boheme such strong roots from the very beginning. This recreation in music, words and song reminds me a lot of Lou Reed’s classic “Walk OnThe Wild Side” with its stories of all the people in and around Andy Warhol’s bohemian arts “Factory”.
In this production tonight, our two principal characters Mimi (Hye-Youn Lee) and Rodolfo (Luis Gomes) create on stage a believable love affair, and that is crucial if any of the classic arias and duets are not only to work, but to be believed at an emotional level by the audience. Hye-Youn Lee is not only a very good operatic soprano, but a gifted stage performer as well, and Luis Gomes with a combination of that wonderful tenor voice and stage presence makes up a perfect on stage partnership.
Our other struggling to survive bohemians, Marcello (David Stout), Schaunard (Božidar Smiljanić) and Colline (Damien Pass) bring fully to life the free flowing music and words of this production that at the time of the original production were so innovative by Puccini and re-defined not only how an opera could look and sound on stage, but also how the characters interacted with one another. Taking special place here of course is Jeanine De Bique who gives us a truly Josephine Baker inspired Musetta who looks and sounds like she could have just walked right out of 1920s Paris.
There are so many classics in this production - Che gelida manina (Rodolfo), Sì. Mi chiamano Mimì (Mimì) and Che facevi, che dicevi (Marcello/Musetta/Mimì/Rodolfo) to highlight only a few, and all were performed here to well deserved audience applause.
Director Renaud Doucet and Designer André Barbe with Lighting by Guy Simard have done an amazing job here of re-creating 1920s Paris on stage with wonderful set design and outstanding costumes. This production is lavish and takes us as an audience into the fantasy world of struggling artistic Bohemians…a world that seems full of artistic endeavour and romance, that in reality was a life of harsh poverty that every one wanted to escape from if their endeavours were ever successful financially.
Our entry into this long past world of Parisian 1920s is via the busy tourists that throng the present day Marche aux Puces de Saint Ouen and an unwell present day tourist visiting the area and a seller specialising in 1920s objets d’art. When the proprietor puts an old 78 jazz record onto a gramophone to play, our tourist daydreams of La Boheme and the painters, writers, poets and friends in their cold and gloomy garrets. The concept behind the past and the present not being separate, but somehow always intermingling with one another in a city like Paris is an interesting one and provides a good way for our doorway to the past to be opened at the start. The re-use of this contemporary Paris moving into our 1920s story line again after the interval does not work so well and if anything breaks the carefully woven spell that has up until now been created to take us into our La Boheme world. We do quickly re-enter this 1920s world, but I would rather have not left it in the first place.
The vintage seller runs a business specialising in “Art Deco” and the whole production (and brochure cover) is a homage to the period and the Art Deco aesthetic . Our original inhabitants would of course simply called this “moderne” as the term Art Deco was not used until 1958.
La Boheme is a classic production from Scottish Opera and Theater St Gallen that well deserved the huge applause from the audience at the end of the show and many stage bows.
Review by Tom King