Welsh National Opera at Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff *****

Though originally seen 12 years ago, this WNO production of Puccini’s most heart-breaking opera maintains a freshness and capacity to enthral which kicks so many routine run-throughs of this repertoire staple into touch.

Director Caroline Chaney has allowed this masterpiece to speak its own language, uncluttered by director’s gimmicks – nor slick updatings. Stephen Brimson Lewis’ economical but telling designs set us firmly in the Paris of the 1830’s Tim Mitchell’s lighting creates an atmosphere in which radiant warmth briefly dispels bleak chills, and Nina Dunn’s video design brings starlight, migrating birds – and someone has also brought about the smoking chimneys of Paris as the four student friends gaze down from their garret across the rooftops.

Chaney has inserted so many telling details: Mimi and Rodolfo cosying up so intimately in a corner of the Café Momus, before she cowers alone there, racked by coughing; another, most poignantly, is the musician Schaunard mixing Mimi’s useless medicine, taking it to her in a chipped mug, and being the first to discover she has died.

We have three acts of poignant intimacy, and one, the second, of glitter and bustle. In this scene at the Café Momus we have busy choral activity, strident interjections from the children, and an onstage marching band (just disappointing that the clown toy-seller Parpignol doesn’t bring any actual toys – why not just shovel in a stall?).

It is here on Christmas Eve that all the relationships are forged, eventually to show their strengths as Mimi passes away in the comfortless garret. And this cast is such a wonderful team, headed by the sassy but frail Mimi of Elin Pritchard, the owlishly endearing Rodolfo of Jung Soo Yun), the tormented, helpless Marcello (actually, possibly the main character – read the Murger source, Scenes de la Vie de Boheme) of German E Alcantara, and Aofie Miskelly’s many-sided Musetta, an imperious courtesan melting into a penitent sinner who prays for Mimi’s recovery.

All of this is marshalled so flowingly by Pietro Rizzi, conducting the remarkable WNO Orchestra, rich in tone, responsive in detail.

*At Birmingham Hippodrome November 9, 10, 11 (7.15pm).

Box Office 0844 338 5000



                                                            THE MAKROPOULOS AFFAIR

                                             Welsh National Opera at Wales Millennium Centre ***

We begin as though in Charles Dicken’s Jarndyce and Jarndyce in Bleak House, with an endlessly protracted probate suit. We end with a mysterious woman revealing all the answers, as during the 337 years of her potion-prolonged life she has slept with all the men involved and produced their children.

This is the gist of Janacek’s penultimate opera, and it presents the director with tempting opportunities. Do we show her, currently the starry opera-singer Emilia Marty, as revelling in her colourful past, or do we portray her as a classy, tormented lady with an elegant disdain for whatever has gone on before?

Many decades ago it was my privilege to review David Pountney’s production of the opera for WNO, with the unsurpassable Elisabeth Soderstrom as the protagonist. Here was class indeed. Olivia Fuchs concept for this new WNO presentation has turned it into something very different.

The audience is encouraged to laugh at the bumbling interventions of the charismatic Emilia’s many suitors. They are indeed encouraged to laugh in embarrassment at the many gratuitous rough sex episodes (and there were so many children in the audience here); I could go in for graphic detail, but am remembering instead the restraint of WNO’s previous staging.

This current production is skewed. For two acts it lurches towards bawdy farce, and the opening of the third act continues the belly-laughs. Then suddenly it realises the tragic stature of the piece, when Emilia accepts that she is at last dying, and bids farewell to all those around her with the wisdom acquired from centuries of experience.

Angela Blancas Giulin is an amazing Emilia, flapperly Louise Brooks-like in Act One’s cluttered lawyer’s office, brassy in her post-opera performance Act Two, manic and then so heroic in Act Three. We marvelled at how well her voice stood up under so much belting pressure. As her latest infatuation, Nicky Spence was a sterling Albert Gregor, ringing of tone, his body-language displaying frustrated despair with every movement.

WNO music director Tomas Hanus conducted the wonderful WNO Orchestra in his own edition of the score (one wonders what the editorial problems are?), and their response was glowing and affirmative, supplemented by the offstage brass reminding us so much of Janacek’s contemporaneous Sinfonietta.

*Birmingham Hippodrome November 8 (7.15 pm).

Details on 0844 338 5000

Christopher Morley


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