Photo credit: © Glyndebourne Productions Ltd.
“Bohemian” as an archetype verism opera, tends to resist stagings that take it well beyond the limits of 19th century Paris, or even non-naturalistic approaches to the work. (Audiences tend to resist them, too.) The two most successful in London recently have been John Copley’s recently retired version at the Royal Opera House – a literally spectacular heritage production – and Jonathan Miller’s on the road at the ‘English National Opera, which moves the action in the 1930s but remains attached to an impeccably rendered realism. Richard Jones’ recent version at Covent Garden has been doggedly revived though tends towards the emotionally chilly and has brought few new ideas to the work.
Probably the most adventurous productions of recent years have belonged to Calixto Bieito, who describes it as a kind of terrible dream of heartbreak in the hospital where Mimì succumbs to cancer, and the controversial but visionary Tarkovsky-inspired setting by Claus Guth … on the moon .
Floris Visser’s new production of this classic at Glyndebourne Festival Opera this year hardly goes that far, but proves to be one of the most striking interpretations of the piece in years, brilliantly conceived and staged with an imagination and breathtaking focus. This is Glyndebourne’s first new production in 20 years.
A cold and dark Paris
Dieuweke Van Reij’s set is just a cobbled road, winding through an abyssal darkness; A bunch of corrugated sheet chairs and a few tables are the only furniture for the Momus came in act two; he is inspired by Brassaï’s photographs of Paris in the 1920s; In particular the streets around the hellish barrier and the catacombs, as if to underline the deadly trajectory of the opera. Visual and cinematic references are punchy and elegant; playwright Klaus Bertisch and Visser really did their homework.
It’s disciplined and beautifully lit by Alex Brok in this decidedly unrealistic production. In a cooling spectacular turn of events In act two, the refrain transforms the menus to the Momus coffee threatened Mimì with a ghostly image of its mortality. The high walls and narrow design keep the drama tense and confined, giving it a terrifying sense of inevitability and claustrophobia.
There are intimations of a starkly existentialist worldview: Marcello and Rodolfo linger in the bleak space like Vladimir and Estragon on the road in “Waiting for Godot;” Colline’s (Jon Morrell) costume evokes Jean-Paul Sartre; Marcello’s painting of the Red Sea resembles something from the post-war avant-garde. It feels like a world on the precipice – the landlord Benoit (is he even their “real” landlord?) is a staggering drunk, smashing a bottle against the wall; the soldiers of the third act abuse the sex workers at the entrance to the city. A certain mechanical thrill comes from Rodolfo’s use of a typewriter rather than pen and paper, although he smacks in a somewhat distracting way in “O soave fanciulla” – though that’s perhaps- be the problem.
Visser’s main intervention is the death of Christopher Lemmings – a character who stalks magnetically, silently, following Mimì everywhere. The character suggests Ingmar Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal” and the movie “Meet Joe Black”. This shouldn’t work – sledgehammer meet nut – but Lemmings’ restrained presence is just understated enough to give her scenes with Rodolfo a terrifying edge. In the latest measurements, he takes Mimì by the hand and they walk slowly up the scene in the dark. A stunning and distinctive ending to an opera we know all too well.
1956 movie – which really underlines the feeling that we all live in the Reaper’s shadow. The balloons themselves exemplify what makes the show so compelling – a sudden burst of color that makes a huge impact in this monochromatic staging, much like the funereal, sickly pink flowers that adorn the stacks of iron chairs in the meeting of Mimì and Rodolfo. It is another example of decluttering: a simple graphic prop instead of a panoply of toys and period assignments, keeping our focus on what is already a complex scene.
Visser’s greatest success is his clarity in distilling what opera really is – a confrontation with mortality that rarely lingers in performances with such weight and omen. Just having Death on stage during Rodolfo and Mimì’s tender duet – a moment that mostly turns into a bleak feeling – completely transforms the dynamics of the scene, putting particular and tragic pressure on their budding ardor. . Visser’s production manages to be both spectacular and economical by turns, letting Puccini’s score do much of the emotional work whilst also conjuring an evocative and fresh setting.
Stunning debut amid solid turns
Yaritza Véliz sings Mimì, an old Jette Parker Young Artist at the Royal Opera House and here making his debut in Glyndebourne. And what a start it is – she’s a performer with remarkable control and dexterity through voice, and using soft-grained pianissimi and delicately sculpted gestures to channel huge amounts of pathos. “Mi chiamano Mimì” was wonderfully velvety and even – consistency of color and tone was one of its many strengths that night. In livelier moments – the Act Two sequence – Veliz pops and rings through the texture. The very last scene with Rodolofo – when she sang the line »Bella come a tramonto “(” as beautiful as a sunset “) was heartbreaking, followed by a sweet cover of” Mi Chiamano Mimì “.
Sehoon Moon, who was scheduled to sing later in the run, replaced Long Long as Rodolfo, who was unable to perform due to visa issues. Moon’s trenchant tenor suits nonchalant Rodolfo, and there is a gleam to his playful voice that, again, suggests a life-force at odds with the opera’s drift towards darkness. ‘Che gelida manina’ had a childlike tenderness that marked a journey into heavier, more steely undertones through its very last tortured cry of ‘Mimì’. At the higher ends of the vocal – anything above a G or so – it felt rushed and the sound was a bit rushed, losing the flexibility and color it otherwise exhibited throughout.
Daniel Scofield sang a rough and ready Marcello, a drunkard obstruction constantly in the middle of a collapse. Vocally he brought plenty of growl and grit – all in character – but shone in lyrical escapism at the climax of act two, turning his somber instrumentation into true nobility on his upper E.
Vuvu Mpofu sang Musetta; in 2019 she won the John Christie Glyndebourne Prize. She is more brash and crystalline than Véliz, and is superb vocal foil, leaning into the character’s swagger and polishing notes above the stave to a fine gleam in Act two; the crying in his voice in the final sequence of act four was truly touching.
Luthando Qave was an effervescent Schaunard, an extravagant showman – perhaps even somewhat shamanistic in his life-affirming energies – and navigated Puccini’s nosebleed tessitura in style, never falling into shouts and retaining a sense of the elegant line. His story about the dead parrot was a highlight (it’s easy to forget how cleverly Puccini blends tragedy with comedy in the play.)
Ivo Stanchev’s Hill offered a tender song to his mantle, finding subtle nuances and human warmth in his short time in the spotlight. Richard Suart had a typically sharp turn as Benedict.
Jordan de Souza strode through the opening stages with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, infusing then (and at the top of Act Four) the ruckus with verve, delivering a highly responsive and bubbly commentary from the pit. The following scenes were treated with tenderness, with a sensual string game and remarkable warmth in brass and woods; De Souza coordinated the stimulating sets of the second act with ease and momentum, keeping the energies of the orchestra under control. In his hands is music that struggles, like a fervently beating heart, against the forces of death and time, rendered so powerfully in Visser’s vision.
He will tour in the fall; we feel that the production will turn and turn.