Opera lovers were apprehensive when Welsh National Opera retired Goran Jarvefelt's much-loved production of Puccini's 'La Bohème'. They needn’t have been.
Annabel Arden’s brand new production may use state-of-the-art video effects, and it may nudge the action into the Edwardian era (though you’d barely notice). But everything in this production serves the drama; and when Puccini’s delirious love-songs collide with Arden’s shimmering, wintry stage-pictures, the result is enchanting.
It’s illuminating, too: literally, as Nina Dunn’s video-projections conjure up living sepia-postcards of fin-de-siècle Paris or summon a whirling snowstorm. And figuratively: deliciously surreal touches (a pair of transvestites at the Café Momus; Parpignol capering in a monkey mask) complement the back-projections’ suggestion that the Bohemians are living in a beautiful illusion. Sure enough, the wrenching final scenes are played out to stark, cold daylight.
It helped, of course, that WNO had fielded one of their strongest casts since their 2010 ‘Meistersinger’. Alex Vicens was that rarest of things, a convincingly young-looking Rodolfo, with a soaring, fluid tenor; Anita Hartig (a touchingly gauche Mimi) matched him for vocal star-quality. Both received well-deserved ovations, as did company regular David Kempster, playing Marcello as a perpetual student with just enough gravitas to act as a father-figure to Rodolfo – though Gary Griffiths (ebullient as Schaunard) ran him close for charm. Kate Valentine, meanwhile, was the Musetta of everyone’s dreams: utterly seductive.
Gloriously, Carlo Rizzi was back in the pit, and – judging from some lip-smacking ‘portamenti’ – living every bar. If it continues as it’s begun, WNO’s new ‘Bohème’ will be drenching hankies for years to come.