Puccini’s La Bohème is one of the most popular operas performed. For someone who is unfamiliar with opera, it is easily accessible and the story is understandable. Its tragic tale of star-crossed lovers is one that has captivated audiences for over a century.
As winter hits Paris, Rodolfo falls in love with Mimì, who is suffering from consumption. Evidently, this romance is doomed from the start, but that doesn’t make it any less affecting.
The opera is sung in Italian, with English captions.
What makes this staging all the more devastating is the relatively young cast, most of whom are making their Opera North debuts. There are two casts who alternate performances. The night I saw La Bohème, Rodolfo was played by Eleazar Rodriguez and Lauren Fagan played Mimì. Casting such young opera singers into these roles makes their ill-fated romance even more tragic because the characters should have the rest of their lives together, but their happiness cruelly ends up being cut short.
The lead performances are sublime. Rodriguez and Fagan share an extraordinary chemistry. From the moment Rodolfo warms Mimì’s icy hands, their relationship is spellbinding. The pure passion and emotion in their songs together is beautiful and enrapturing. However, their exaltation of falling in love is harshly offset with the brutal realism of Mimì’s ominous, fierce coughing. From the start, Fagan renders Mimì as a frail character, so it is evident that she hasn’t got long left in the world, and that this romance will be fleeting. Saying that, Fagan’s vocals are still resonant and she delivers her arias with powerful poignancy.
Despite knowing that their romance is ill-fated, the ending is still emotionally devastating. As someone who had never seen the opera before, I still hoped in vain that there would be a happier outcome. Rodriguez’s performance is etched with remorse, agony, and despair. The couple’s last duet together is beautifully performed and utterly heart-breaking.
Although it is a tragic love story, La Bohème isn’t all doom and gloom. The songs that begin acts one, two, and four, are actually quite fun, and brilliantly capture the bohemian lifestyle of Rodolfo and his friends. Despite living in abject poverty and being several months behind on the rent, the four friends clearly know how to have a good time.
When they decide to venture into the Latin Quarter on Christmas Eve, the stage becomes a busy marketplace, bustling with Christmas shoppers. A chorus of children from the Opera North Youth Company beg for presents from an ice skating Parpignol (Stuart Laing). Despite him reminding me of the Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, he isn’t actually sinister figure, and just distributes presents to children.
The opulent extravagance on display in this scene drastically contrasts with the sparse interior of Rodolfo’s flat. Anthony Ward‘s excellent set design exposes the stark reality of trying to make a living as a poet. The flat is dominated by a wood burner that is rarely lit, there is little furniture, and no bed. Everything is weathered, dirty, and cold.
Influences from the art world and popular culture are also cleverly reflected in Ward’s design. The stage itself is contained within a frame, Marcello’s paintings of Musetta are reminiscent of Andy Warhol, and a fancy-dress party results in Schaunard dressing as Marilyn Monroe. Ward’s design is memorable and striking, keeping La Bohème fresh to those that have seen it before. Having familiar points of reference also makes the opera relatable to those watching it for the first time.
Puccini’s opera is beautifully poetic and deeply moving. I had never seen it before so I was left broken-hearted from Rodolfo and Mimì’s romance. Eleazar Rodriguez and Lauren Fagan are perfect in the roles, and both deliver astonishing performances which are utterly devastating.
They are not the only couple in this opera though. I was also greatly moved by the troubled relationship between Marcello (Yuriy Yurchuk) and Musetta (Anush Hovhannisyan). In the hands of lesser-skilled performers, it could run the risk of looking like a senseless fling. However, Yurchuk and Hovhannisyan render their characters with such compassion that their romance feels genuinely heartfelt.
Passionate, emotional, and tragically heartbreaking, La Bohème epitomises everything I love about opera.