The following review is written by John O’Brien, my go-to theatre critic and in it he throws up the interesting debate about whether opera should be more appealing to the masses and less elitist – an interesting thought and we’d love to hear your views:-
As far as I’m concerned “opera” is just a fancy word for a musical. If we are to democratise this art form and make it available to everyone, then why don’t we start calling these shows musicals? Because that is what they are. They’re sung plays, just like a musical by Stephen Sondheim or Andrew Lloyd Webber. I see no difference between “La bohème” or “Phantom of the Opera” or “Company” – they are all fantastic shows with acting, music and singing. Looked at in this way we can all enjoy going to the Coliseum and have a great time watching a wonderful show and Jonathan Miller’s inspired interpretation of La bohème is a perfect example of what I mean.
It’s a musical about two tempestuous lovers Mimi (Natalya Romaniw, wonderful) and Rudi (Jonathan Tetelman, excellent) and their friends in Paris. The title refers to the artistic lifestyle they pursue which is likened to that of gypsy’s who it was thought came from Bohemia in Central Europe. The action takes place in an attic and a café. Rudi is a penniless writer who lives in an attic because it’s cheap. Mimi lives next door. They meet when she knocks to ask for a light for her candle. They touch hands and fall in love but she dies of “the white plague”; Tuberculosis. End of musical.
The joy is in the music and the singing. The music in combination with the singing is haunting, mesmerising and enthralling. “La bohème” deliberately mixes the comic and the tragic so that we simultaneously feel elation and despair. This doubleness or conflicted complexity is the key to La bohème. It is true to life because life is itself tragi-comic, both emotions are in play all the time. This is best demonstrated in the second act in the Café Momus. Rudi and Mimi are singing about love and eternity whereas Marcello (Nicholas Lester) and Musetta (Nadine Benjamin, superb) are singing about lust, desire and hedonism. The tension between otherworldly Romanticism and comic down to earth Realism is perfectly realised in this scene. Brilliant. Nadine Benjamin’s Musette is a comic tour de force. She literally kicks ass as she sings “I like to go alone along the street”. If Mimi has a death wish then Musetta is a life-force. Puccini has deliberately contrasted the femme fragile and the femme fatale.
The comic aspects of La bohème diminish as we move towards the tragic finale in Act 4. In a fantastic death sofa scene Mimi declares her love for Rudi and intensifies the hand holding of act 1 as she sings “my hands are warm, now I shall sleep”. This scene of death is paradoxically rendered beautiful by art. Mimi is as pale as an angel under the exquisite lighting. Disease has enhanced her beauty. The candle imagery of Act 1 is intensified as Mimi is likened to a candle in the wind. “Out out brief candle.” This is where Romanticism becomes shrouded in the mystique of disease, death and dying young. Mimi indubitably dies a divinely beautiful death, despite the devastating impact. This is an uncomfortable but undeniable aspect of the visceral power of Romanticism. Mimi is at once desirable, diseased and doomed.
This is a tremendous production of La bohème.
Highly recommended and it’s on at The Coliseum, London until the 22nd February 2019