More Basildon than Bastille, David McVicar’s grungy staging of La Bohème heralded the new millennium amidst concrete and steel, fire hazards and fire escapes, chavs and chav nots, bringing our “bohemians” into the here and now with a cynical nod or two at our own struggling youth culture and the slightly surreal sensation of stepping in from tea at Glyndebourne’s Mildmay room to an urban jungle where the only splash of colour is a street poster for Bohème in, naturally, the style of the art nouveau period.
But appearances can be deceptive and a faltering romance blooms amidst the grimness with a panoply of naked light bulbs standing in for stars as Mimi and Rudolfo play out a West Side Story kind of rapture on the fire escape and a chorus line of Christmas revelers and the obligatory drag queens dodge the fuzz outside Cafe Momus. I like the way McVicar undercuts the cutesiness of that scene - one of the greatest in all opera - with even the kids on the make and Parpignol, the toy-seller, carted off for selling dodgy goods. Shop window video screens play images of angelic choirboys and there’s a brass band of Santas. Well it is Christmas. But not before good time girl Musetta sets the tone of the night with her cabaret “turn” and Irina Iordachescu steps up to the plate with a terrifically accomplished “Waltz Song”. Through all the fun and frolic and great pinging top notes this young lady made Musetta real for me and it was she who kept drawing my focus in the tragedy of the final scene.
The challenge of an update such as this, of course, is that you are essentially playing against the style of the piece and whilst that is not a problem in itself I did feel that for all the young talent on stage we needed here a greater awareness of that style in both the performances and the conducting of Kirill Karabits which did the business but was not without its awkwardnesses. But an energetic team effort and some smashing voices, not least Andrei Bondarenko’s Marcello and Nahuel Di Pierro’s Colline.
Ekaterina Scherbachenko’s Mimi and David Lomeli’s Rudolfo both grew with the evening. His greatest asset at this point is a bright vibrant top and bags of conviction, she is an undoubted star whose heartfelt and vocally uninhibited third act so movingly prefigured her eventual death when only Puccini’s orchestra - such a brilliant stroke, this - notices the moment of her passing.
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