Modern bohemian rhapsody

<i>La Boh&Atilde;&iquest;me</i> | Glynebourne
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The Independent Culture

The four acts of Puccini's La Bohÿme often seem like disconnected backdrops against which the singers pose for vocal display. One of the triumphs of David McVicar's new Glyndebourne Touring Opera production is that its focal point is the characters and their relationships, which are more complex than we might think when our attention is on the Big Sing.

The four acts of Puccini's La Bohÿme often seem like disconnected backdrops against which the singers pose for vocal display. One of the triumphs of David McVicar's new Glyndebourne Touring Opera production is that its focal point is the characters and their relationships, which are more complex than we might think when our attention is on the Big Sing.

It's not that the voices fall short, rather that they are never allowed to outface the drama. Given that modern young bohemians are more likely to be found in ritzy restaurants than in frozen garrets, it's no mean achievement that McVicar's more or less contemporary staging gives us four struggling bohos alive with genuine fire, not only of friendship, but of artistic mission. If there's something of The Young Ones about it, with Alfred Boe's Rodolfo just a little like Rik Mayall, McVicar shows us the froth on these young people's daydreams, and the "all for one and one for all" camaraderie feels authentic. Throughout, Michael Vale's sets give the stage revolve plenty to do, and in the Brueghelesque bustle of the Café Momus, Paule Constable's lighting is not afraid of using a follow-spot on Claron McFadden's Musetta. Corny? Bold? Let's say boldly corny.

Then, when Mimi's death unfolds, the characters' collective distress cuts to the bone. In some productions, our sobs at this moment seem unearned. Here there is no doubt that we are watching young lives ripped to shreds. I don't think I've ever heard the pause after Mimi's last breath held for as long as conductor Louis Langree holds it here, and the effect is devastating. If the production was sung in English, rather than Italian, it might be the more so, but that's Glyndebourne for you. Then again, GTO has a multi-national cast (British, American, Italian, French, Icelandic), so perhaps English is out of the question, and in any case, the sense of ensemble is impressive.

It's dominated, naturally enough, by Rodolfo and Mimi, for whom Langree conducts with due attention to youthful vocal weight. While Alfred Boe's tenor is still a little light for Rodolfo, the lyricism has room to breathe, nowhere more so than in "Che gelida manina", which he shapes beautifully.

As for Simona Todaro's Mimi, she is at her most moving in Puccini's conversational passages. That isn't to suggest that she disappoints when the Big Sings come round, but that the in-between moments have laid a proper foundation. So much so, in fact, that at no point does applause interrupt the musical flow: and in this case, that's a mark of real approval.

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