Giacomo Puccini - La bohème
Irish National Opera, 2023
Sergio Alapont, Orpha Phelan, Celine Byrne, Sarah Brady, Merūnas Vitulskis, Iurii Samoilov, Gyula Nagy, Lukas Jakobski, Eddie Wade, Fearghal Curtis, David Scott, Kevin Neville
Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, Dublin - 26th November 2023
If you think there is nothing radical you can do to enhance Puccini's La bohème, then you've probably only seen variations of John Copley's Royal Opera House warhorse or the classic Franco Zeffirelli stage production and haven't seen the extraordinary versions over the last decade by Stefan Herheim and Claus Guth. Whether that is strictly necessary, whether it adds anything to what is already there and more than sufficient on its own in Puccini's score is another matter. Updated to a different time period but not contemporary (or in outer space) you get the feeling that this is the direction taken by Orpha Phelan for the Irish National Opera production. Why risk spoiling what is already perfect by trying to impose a contemporary situation upon it.
It's arguable in any case that Henry Murger's original 1851 novel 'Scènes de la vie de bohème' is very much about a specific time and place, but there is clearly much that can be read in the interrelated story collection that says much about society, poverty and artists. That however is not the main concern of Puccini's La bohème, or perhaps it is but with a shift of emphasis onto the romantic relationships that are also present in Murger. Puccini's La bohème is at heart a love story, two love stories even, supported by some of the most soaring romantic and tragic music composed for an opera. The best thing about Phelan's INO production is that it doesn't get in the way of this, but supports it almost exactly the way an audience expects. The worse thing about is that it gives you exactly what you expect.
Indeed, as the other (extreme) versions mentioned above indicate, since they make such a huge impression, it's a long time since I've seen a La bohème so lacking in surprises or inspiration. Even the current Royal Opera House production from 2018 had a freshness to it. The danger of this is that with familiarity the opera comes across as little more than a series of set pieces, and when it adds up to set pieces there's little sense of true emotion or drama. Well, that's a risk in the first half at least, and no matter what the production does (even in the hands of Guth), it would be hard not to feel almost devastated by the progression of the final two acts as scored by Puccini.
La bohème's enduring appeal as a tragic romantic opera drama needs little critical support or analysis on that front. The balance of the work is masterful, its contrasting of Rodolfo and Mimi's spark of love on a downward trajectory from its moment of ignition contrasted by Musetta and Marcello's relationship heading in the opposite direction. Puccini plays these two troubled relationships out simultaneously to the same music, with superb use of motifs and repeated refrains that play out in contrasting contexts. As familiar as it has become, there is no question that it's still a masterwork.
Whether it has anything deep or important to say depends on the experience of the individual listener. Certainly I've seen little in opera that comes close to the ecstatic experience of discovering love and the agonising pain of losing it (only Shakespeare can match this in Romeo and Juliet and in Othello). More specifically, it's how Puccini's music captures the rush of young love, the sensation of wanting to have it all and have it now, only later having to deal with the realities of life and relationships. And it has to be said that the realities of poverty and its impact on relationships is not underplayed, even if it's often shown in the context of the brevity of happiness grasped by the bohemian artists in Paris in a specific historical period.
Poverty, illness and death impacting on love and relationships is of course not something that only relates to a distant past. Orpha Phelan however is not too ambitious in her setting of this between WWI and WWII apparently, although like the last INO production, the Jack Furness directed Faust, it's somewhat random and non-specific. There are few twists in each of the scenes in the four acts of this La bohème, although they do flow together well, creating the necessary climate, light and conditions you would expect to find in each of those scenes. It all feels rather perfunctory, trying not to impose on it anything beyond what is necessary for those scenes to work, but in consequence, not really inviting you to consider them in a new light. It has a tendency to just wash over.
Indifference to the situation of the bohemians is the last thing you want from this opera, but there is one considerable factor that prevents this from happening (aside from Puccini's score conducted well here by Sergio Alapont) and it's the fact that you have you have everything you expect from a Rodolfo and a Mimi in the casting of Merūnas Vitulskis and Celine Byrne. In fact, you'd be hard pushed to find any better today, not just in terms of their ability to meet the technical challenges, but also in terms of the necessary passion that goes into performing these roles. Unfortunately, that's more down to the professionalism of the singers and their familiarity with the roles, as the stage direction didn't really add a great deal of conviction to dilemma that Rodolfo and Mimi find themselves in. The same can be said for all the main roles, especially the fabulous performances of Sarah Brady as Musetta and Iurii Samoilov as Marcello.
Irish National Opera were I feel a little more adventurous in their first few seasons since they were formed in 2018, even in their approach to the big operatic standards. Orpha Phelan has also been much more adventurous in the past with beautiful interpretations for the INO's La Cenerentola and Lalla Roukh for Wexford. Following the first opera this season Faust, it feels like post-pandemic they are focussing on bringing an audience back and taking them along with them. It might not appeal to those who like their opera productions a little more avant-garde but I'll say this for their La bohème; playing out to full houses at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre in Dublin with an opera like this, performed to this kind of standard, there are a lot of people who will be back for the next one. And the next one is Salome, and there's no playing safe with that one.
Links: Irish National Opera