Whilst it is not an uncommon occurrence for tenors to embarrass themselves on stage by cracking high notes, or for a technical hitch to result in a dead character accidentally ‘coming back’ to life, or for wardrobe malfunctions to come dangerously close to appearing, it happens rarely that an entire production humiliates itself – in more ways than one. This was the case with the Welsh National Opera’s production of La Bohème, which bore little resemblance to Puccini, opera, or the visual setting with which we usually associate the work.
Annabel Arden’s production – supposedly set in early 20th century Paris, is a mismatch of illogical ideas combined with lack of imagination and a visible lack of production funding. A grim long fog-steamed window is the only evidence we have of the apartment where the Bohème live; Christmas in Paris is portrayed through one bare winter tree with an array of coloured garden lights hanging from one end of the stage to the other; for no reason whatsoever, among the crowd of ladies attired in pink frocks at Café Momus are two men clad in the same costumes; and at the end of the opera when Mimì is grateful for the gift of her muff as she shivers from cold before dying, relieved that her hands ‘won’t be blue’, she chooses to put only one hand into the muff.
Putting aside the visual context, the production might have made some sense if it had actually been sung. Unfortunately the frequency of poor vocal training and/or loss of technique has meant that nowadays opera singers get away with singing their way rather than the music’s way; as little as possible, and very often improperly. Alex Vicens’ Rodolfo was often several wavering notes lapped onto one. When he sang the final ‘Amor!’ at the end of “O soave fanciulla,” he cracked the note and then continued to sing longer than Mimì, as though to overcompensate for previous vocal faults. Often in the simplest and most famous of musical phrases – everything from the start of “Che gelida manina,” to the frolicking that goes on between Rodolfo and the other artists – Vicens lingered from one note to another, straying from the vocal line and rarely effecting a legato or a single steady, firmly held note.
While his partner Giselle Allen as Mimì sustained a form of singing closer to the music, there was a constant impression that her voice came from her vocal cords, not from the power of her diaphragm. It possessed little strength and came very close to sounding like a misused instrument. Kate Valentine’s Musetta sang her role in more a jazz than operatic style, likewise providing her character with a gift for overdramatic acting which went below even Musetta’s standards. Vicens as Rodolfo similarly enjoyed a lot of sparse and arbitrary movement, clutching his fists in cliché operatic mode when Mimì died, and generally jumping a little with his hands thrown about, echoing comic acts of 1930’s silent movies.
Puccini himself was not very well met in this production. Simon Philippo’s conducting made for an interesting mixture of notes, rhythms and patterns; somewhat ballroom-like. Sometimes the music represented a waltz – and often in the gloomy moments when it should have been sustained more, legato, or slower, or melodious; at other times the notes – particularly on violins – were so disjointed from each other that the beat became a jazz-beat, or perhaps the bass part of a tango. Together the orchestra resembled Mantovani’s orchestra, with the strings sounding like restaurant fiddles and the brass instruments playing some of their notes in so blunt and accented a manner that they interfered with the main melody. There was no smoothness and blend of harmonies across the orchestra that gave it any classical, symphonic resonance.
All aspects of this production spoke for themselves, and often in their lack of reasoning – from the singing that was non-singing to Musetta’s outrageously exaggerated howl when she pretends she’s in pain – asked to be humiliated. On the other hand it was Puccini’s voice – and La Bohème’s – which were not heard.