La Boheme, one of the world’s best loved and deeply emotional operas, is back in Birmingham.

Welsh National Opera (WNO) return in stunning form to The Birmingham Hippodrome stage with Puccini’s timeless La Boheme.

The heartwarming, and heartbreaking, opera touches upon the power of love to light a path through the darkness of loneliness, poverty and loss.

Despite the darkness of the world the spirit of love continues to smileRichard Hubert Smith
Despite the darkness of the world the spirit of love continues to smile

The popular opera tells the uncannily contemporary tale of a group of friends – an artist, a poet, a philosopher and a musician – all struggling to eek out a living in one of the poorest quarters of Paris in 1830.

The friends all nurse dreams of rising out of poverty via the gifts of their artistic outputs as rents mount, food and heating become expensive luxuries, and true love seems to be a literal elusive dream.

Rodolpho, a poet looking for inspiration, begins to fall in love with a young seamstress. As their love and trust blossoms it soon becomes clear the Mimi is ill and is need of medical attention. However, due to their poverty, there is no access to doctors or treatment.

Elin Pritchard (Mimi) and Jung Soo Yun (Rodolfo) share a beautiful chemistryRichard Hubert Smith
Elin Pritchard (Mimi) and Jung Soo Yun (Rodolfo) share a beautiful chemistry

The warm connection shared between Rodolpho and Mimi is contrasted with the other couple in the opera – Marcello (a painter) and Musetta (a singer) – whose love is fiery, argumentative and even confrontational.

Despite the grim subject matter of poverty, impending tragedy and grief, there are plenty of warm and tender – even funny – moments where the darkness is tempered with joy and light.

Any production of La Boheme sinks or rises depending upon the casting of the two central characters – Rodolpho and Mimi.

Tenor Jung Soo Yun, who studied in Seoul, is convincing as the heartbroken Rodolpho whose poems will be inked in the love he feels for his beloved Mimi. Yun’s voice has the power to ride high over the crescendo of the lusty orchestra. He also has the gentleness and sweetness in his vocal performance to not only melt and move Mimi but also emotionally grip the audience.

Elin Pritchard, a graduate of the Royal Welsh College of Music, shares a beautiful and warm chemistry with Yun which is a key component of making this La Boheme such an emotionally devastating evening at the opera.

Pritchard does not need a glamorous outfit or stylish shoes to embellish and draw the eyes of the audience to her performance. Her art comes through the grace and lyricism of her sweetly textured soprano delivery which strikes right into the heart.

Despite a cold and hostile world the spirit of love remains warmRichard Hubert Smith
Despite a cold and hostile world the spirit of love remains warm

A note to casting directors looking for a new Don Giovanni. Look no further than Benson Wilson who plays the role of the flamboyantly dressed Schaunard (the musician whose temporary success helps to feed  his cold and starving friends in the opera).

Wilson, who hails from New Zealand and has Samoan heritage, swans into La Boheme with an entrance worthy of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. His lush black coat flows around him like a cloak, and he moves like a lord of the manor, all regal and in command.

His striking presence, and his nuanced vocal and dramatic abilities, mark him out as a talent to keep an eye on in future opera productions. His mannerisms in the emotionally devastating climax of the opera reveals Wilson’s attention to detail as he makes the audience feel the grief that begins to seize his heart as he witnesses tragedy engulf Rodolpho and Mimi.

Benson Wilson (Schaunard) has the vocal power and charisma to be a sensational Don GiovanniRichard Hubert Smith
Benson Wilson (Schaunard) has the vocal power and charisma to be a sensational Don Giovanni

Pietro Rizzo conducts Puccini’s score with a tempo that energises the music and makes the action move along briskly. This is not an idle or pedestrian pacing. Rizzo masterfully draws out the darkness and heartrending pain being felt by the friends and lovers as their existence and relationships are severely tested by fate and circumstance.

Puccini’s opera remains very modern and topical despite being set in another era. The WNO production moves the action to the advent of the 20th century where there are indications – such as predatory men in military uniforms prowling around ominously on the edge of the stage – that the world is heading towards a war that will change the landscape of society, religion, and politics, and even impact upon gender roles.

This new WNO production of La Boheme by Caroline Chaney is a revival of the 2012 production by Annabel Arden.

The stage effects, such as silhouettes, are poetic and atmosphericRichard Hubert Smith
The stage effects, such as silhouettes, are poetic and atmospheric

However, considering how so many themes of the original libretto resonate with the current economic world situation it would have been a more refreshing and bold move to have set Puccini’s oft-performed opera in present times and make the opera more immediately relatable to the audience.

Contemporary and radically daring productions can work as was proven when Jonathan Larson took inspiration from La Boheme for his critically-acclaimed musical Rent which opened on Broadway in 1996.

The art design – a mix of traditional theatrical effects and technological gimmickry – keeps the drama covered in a cold palette of whites, diluted grays and pale blues, which reinforces the winter setting of the drama with snow falling across the emotionally frozen world.

The poetic metaphor of snow – life as fleeting and transient – is a poignant reflection of the brief but beautiful love shared between Rodolpho and Mimi.

Mimi (Elin Pritchard) realises that life is as fleeting and transient as snowRichard Hubert Smith
Mimi (Elin Pritchard) realises that life is as fleeting and transient as snow

Some of the stage decorations continued the visual poetry. One poignant example included a tree that looked barren and dead, yet it was dressed with colourful lights circling around its lifeless branches which referenced a celebration of life despite the natural cycle of death.

Nina Dunn’s video back projections are cleverly employed in several scenes of the opera. Birds fly across the landscape, patterns weave and merge, and at the climax of a party scene the projections are used to conjure up such delights as a fireworks display.

La Boheme remains timeless, and this beautifully sung WNO production ensures Puccini’s lyrical music continues to engage and move people.

VERDICT: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆


La Boheme is running at The Birmingham Hippodrome until Friday 11 November 

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