Friday 21 July 2023

Back into the film studio: Puccini's La Boheme at Opera Holland Park on a 1950s Italian film set

Puccini: La Bohème - Adam Gilbert and Katie Bird - Opera Holland Park 2023 (Photo: Craig Fuller)
Puccini: La Bohème - Adam Gilbert and Katie Bird - Opera Holland Park 2023 (Photo: Craig Fuller)

Giacomo Puccini: La Boheme; Katie Bird, Adam Gilbert, Elizabeth Karani, Ross Ramgobin, Barnaby Rea, Harry Thatcher, director Natascha Metherell, City of London Sinfonia, conductor George Jackson; Opera Holland Park

An overly busy production takes time to settle but provides the setting for some fine ensemble performances from this young cast

Who are Puccini's Bohemians? Every production has to answer this question, and the answer is surprisingly multi-layered. At the fundamental level, the characters are based on those in Henri Murger's stories about Bohemian life in Paris in the 1840s, yet these starving artists also reflected the artistic cult of Bohemianism, are they really starving artists or simply acting out a life? But then, some of the incidental detail in the opera reflects Puccini's life as a genuinely starving music student in Milan, yet whilst he was studying he became friendly with a group of older artists who had been members of the Italian Scapiligatura movement in the late-19th century and inspired by the French Bohemians.

I have seen productions of the opera which have reflected, at one time or another, each of these layers. For her new production of Puccini's La Boheme at Opera Holland Park, Natascha Metherell chose a different approach.

"An Italian film studio, 1950s
'La Vie Parisienne', a film set in the Latin Quarter during the Belle Epoque is shooting.
Rodolfo and Marcello, aspiring scriptwriter and scenic designer,
bemoan the cold pinch of life with no pay."

There is obviously something in the air. Having seen one classic opera, Carmen, reinvented as a 1950s film production at Oper im Steinbruch in Austria last week [see my review], and Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos in Opera North's recent production inspired by Fellini and Cinecittà [see my review], here we are with La Boheme set in another 1950s film studio.

We caught the opening night, 19 July 2023, of Puccini's La Boheme at Opera Holland Park. Natascha Metherell directed, with designs by Madeleine Boyd, and lighting by Charlie Morgan-Jones. Adam Gilbert was Rodolfo, Katie Bird was Mimi, with Ross Ramgobin as Marcello, Elizabeth Karani as Musetta, Harry Thatcher as Schaunard, and Barnaby Rea as Colline, with Henry Grant Kerswell, Phillip Costovski and Alistair Sutherland.

Puccini: La Bohème - Barnaby Rea and Harry Thatcher - Opera Holland Park 2023 (Photo: Craig Fuller)
Puccini: La Bohème - Barnaby Rea and Harry Thatcher - Opera Holland Park 2023 (Photo: Craig Fuller)

The first three acts all firmly took place in the teemingly busy environment of the film studio, with the four Bohemians working there and seemingly camping out in the back of the studio. Katie Bird's Mimi works in the wardrobe whilst Elizabeth Karani's Musetta is a singer, and we see her in three wildly different costumes. The result presented a busy back drop for both the first two acts, only in the early morning sequence in Act Three, did things calm down and the heart-breaking quartet in this act was given the space and focus it needed. In Act Four, the performance was more traditional, but was this real life or another film set? That Metherell considered it the latter was suggested by the way the chorus appeared, watching the end of the opera and discreetly applauding at the end.

Throughout the performance, there was something of a blurring between what was film and what was 'real' as if Metherell were playing with us, so that the end of Act One was profoundly artfully staged, in theory this was real but Metherell seemed to be suggesting it might be filmed, or perhaps the two young characters were imagining. This meant that throughout the opera, the performances by the fine young cast were disturbed both by the busy-ness on stage and by our busy thoughts, wondering what we were actually seeing.

Puccini: La Bohème - Opera Holland Park 2023 (Photo: Craig Fuller)
Puccini: La Bohème - Opera Holland Park 2023 (Photo: Craig Fuller)

It is always admirable when La Boheme is cast with younger voices so that things are more believable, we are not asked to undergo that extra suspension of disbelief which has us believe that the portly middle-aged baritone with a world-class voice is in fact a starving student. But for the first three acts, Boyd's set designs, which featured lots of dispersed elements and no fixed structure, did the voices no favours on this notoriously tricky, wide stage. It was only in Act Four, where there was a nice fixed structure for the voices to resonate against, that we realised what we were missing. For the first three acts, balance favoured the orchestra a little too much, and the lower voices struggled to establish themselves properly, fine performances were slightly masked and you longed for Metherell to get her young cast onto the fore-stage (this was used exclusively for the 1950s camera crew).

Some fine performances took time to settle and to emerge fully into focus. It did not help Katie Bird's rather serious seamstress that the flirty business with the key with Adam Gilbert's solid Rodolfo rather went for nothing. Bird's famous aria was beautifully sung, but it was only at the very end of the act, when Metherell allowed focus to be just on the lovers, that Bird and Gilbert's performances took wing. By contrast, the staging of Act Two with a separation between the lovers in the cafe and the filming of the crowd scenes, almost brought Bird's contributions as Mimi into greater focus. But it was in Act Three that heart strings were really tugged. Whilst Mimi's Act One aria might be the crowd-pleaser, it is in Act Three that we get to the serious meat, and Bird did not disappoint. This was a  radiant, heart-tugging yet natural-feeling performance And she died perfectly.

She was well complemented by Adam Gilbert's Rodolfo, again he was more serious than usual, not the dashing Romantic poet but something more solid, yet with something burning underneath. In Act Three Gilbert really brought out the intensity of Rodolfo's feelings in the duet with Ramgobin's fine Marcello, and as with Bird's Mimi, it was Act Three that put the meat on Gilbert's character. And here, there were no distractions. He has a fine, strong lyric voice with the right amount of Italianate openness. A former baritone, you feel perhaps that his voice is on a journey towards rather different repertory, but if so, this Rodolfo was a fine way-station and he captured the howl at the end just right.

Puccini: La Bohème - Ross Ramgobin - Opera Holland Park 2023 (Photo: Craig Fuller)
Puccini: La Bohème - Ross Ramgobin - Opera Holland Park 2023 (Photo: Craig Fuller)

The four Bohemians, Gilbert's Rodolfo, Ramgobin's Marcello, Harry Thatcher's Schaunard and Barnaby Rea's Colline had clearly developed a fine ensemble rapport and the four singers' dramatic performances were delightfully engaging, with the horseplay in Acts One and Four never descending into the embarrassing. As I have said, in Act One, musically the voices struggled to establish themselves and musical character only came out gradually. Ramgobin got his opportunity, of course, in Act Two, in the terrific moment when Marcello takes over Musetta's waltz and Ramgobin certainly did not disappoint and he continued to build on this in his nuanced performance in Act Three. The other two only really got their proper chances in Act Four, when the four young men really came into musical and dramatic focus. Barnaby Rea not only sang is farewell to his coat rather well, but he made it part of the character's musico-dramatic arc rather than the 'here's my famous aria' moment. Harry Thatcher provided strong support as a wonderfully engaging Schaunard.

Elizabeth Karani's Musetta actually opened proceedings, miming to a recording of Piaff's 1957 recording of La Foule (music by Angel Cabrel, words by Michel Rivgauche) for the delectation of her lover, Henry Grant Kerswell (Alcindoro, the film's director). Musetta's waltz song is a gift, and here staged with Karani sitting atop a piano, there was no question, Karani took hold of the entire stage and lit it up, and the tension and crackle between her and Ramgobin's Marcello was palpable, even though the two were half a stage away from each other for much of the time. Karani was touching in Act Four (wearing yet another wig and an outfit that looked rather 1960s).

Henry Grant Kerswell gave good value as both Benoit and Alcindoro, and seemed to relish the extra screen-time that this production gave him as Alcindoro. Phillip Costovski was a fine Parpignol, and between Acts Three and Four he got to sing Puccini's 1917 song Morire? a song musing about death originally written for Red Cross fundraiser which, with different words, found its way into a revision of La Rondine!

Puccini: La Bohème - Elizabeth Karani - Opera Holland Park 2023 (Photo: Craig Fuller)
Puccini: La Bohème - Elizabeth Karani
Opera Holland Park 2023 (Photo: Craig Fuller)

In the pit, the City of London Sinfonia, playing a reduced orchestration, still produced a very full, rich sound which embodied everything we love about Puccini. As I have said, the balance favoured the orchestra a bit too much, but there was plenty to enjoy. Conductor George Jackson seemed to take on board a bit too much of the freneticism of the stage action for the first two acts and there were plenty of little moments when I wanted a bit more space, more little rubatos, though he gave admirable space for the big numbers (the sequence at the end of Act One and Musetta's waltz). However, he and the orchestra relaxed more in Act Three and here the music ebbed and flowed as it should, mirroring the vocalism, leading to a fine, idiomatic account of Act Four.

This is one of those productions that probably needs time to settle, there are eight more performances and you feel that more will come into focus. Metherell's idea of the film set is an interesting one, providing a fascinatingly different approach to my question at the top of this article. But she does not seem to have quite cracked the tricky Opera Holland Park stage, however it was clear as the performance developed that she benefited from a finely balanced ensemble cast.

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