La Bohème’: Welsh National Opera at Birmingham Hippodrome ★★★

Puccini’s evergreen work is a banker for opera companies – the audience-attracting equivalent of the Christmas pantomime for theatres. It’s understandable then that WNO wanted to maximize its potential by staging the opera on three successive nights alternating two sets of principal singers and conductor. The plan didn’t work for this lacklustre first night with an audience whose disappointing smallness was matched by an outsized bronchial accompaniment from some members. It can be invidious to compare new and past productions but also a critical necessity. The WNO’s wonderful Göran Järvefelt production, last seen in 2009, had the colour, passion and intensity that this one lacks. Caroline Chaney was the revival director for that production but I found her own, with designs by Stephen Brimson Lewis, largely unconvincing.

The impact of the four Bohemians’ comic antics are diminished by housing them in an attic flat with walls fifty feet high. Instead of expanding into a stage-wide panorama the Café Momus scene is cramped and confined, loomed over by a metallic wall whose centre panel distractingly swung mechanically to-and-fro whether by design or malfunction wasn’t clear. Parpignol the toy seller, dressed as an ape, sells no toys and I pity the two male members of the splendid ever-reliable and versatile WNO Chorus who drew the short straws and schlepped about in female attire – they’d never pass the audition for Ru Paul’s Drag Race.

The singing too was disappointing with the exception of Russian baritone Rodion Pogossov whose Marcello had passion, swagger and a strong firm delivery. He made this impulsive, volatile, generous-hearted painter a believable character. His interplay with the flighty Musetta (Aoife Miskelly) worked well although Miskelly spent more time on flirtatious stage business than on making ‘Quando m'en vo’ the vocal show-stopper it should be. On this evidence Jung Soo Yun lacks the vocal charm and power for Rodolfo which requires a lyric tenor’s lightness but also “squillo” the brilliant trumpet-like ping with which to cut through Puccini’s orchestration. He lacks that and so top Cs were snatched and delivered with what might generously be called wide vibrato. WNO watchers will remember Dennis O’Neill and Gwyn Hughes Jones showing how it should be done. Perhaps Elin Pritchard (Mimi) would be convincing with a different partner but there wasn’t a scintilla of romance or magic evident between them. It’s some sort of achievement, though not an enviable one, to make Puccini’s immortal melodies sound so routine. Let’s thank the WNO orchestra and conductor Pierro Rizzo who did the composer proud. I’ll be seeing the WNO’s alternative ‘Bohème’ cast later – I hope for a better evening then.

Norman Stinchcombe

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