As a genre, opera can seem daunting. Its tendency to be sung in foreign languages, and to tell stories that few are familiar with, makes it something of a challenge to approach. The Scottish Opera’s production of ‘La Bohème’ was anything but, giving the audience an opera that transcends language and speaks to the heart of humanity.
First performed in 1896, Giacomo Puccini’s opera has been a source of inspiration for many, and it isn’t hard to see why. It was among the first operas that used characters that audiences could relate to. It mixes comedy with tragedy, love with deception, portraying a very real and moving image of struggling artists in fin-de-siècle Paris.
‘La Bohème’ tells of friends Marcello (David Stout) and Rodolfo (Luis Gomes), and their trials in art and love. Rodolfo falls in love with the chronically-ill Mimì (Hye-Youn Lee), a romance fated to tragedy; Marcello swings in and out of a relationship with Musetta (Jeanine de Bique). The opera follows the group of friends through soaring highs and devastating lows, culminating in a heart-wrenching ending.
It is always impressive to see opera performed live – hearing such strong voices pour out of the throats of the tiniest of singers is quite the experience. Though the singers were sometimes masked by the volume of the orchestra, they demonstrated their acting abilities as well as musical prowess. This, to the point that the audience could almost have done without the provided subtitles, such was the palpability of the emotion portrayed on stage.
The production was made all the more spectacular thanks to the level of detail and attention put into it by designer André Barbe and director Renaud Doucet. Every scene was meticulously planned, and this gave incredible depth and colour to the story. From the French puns on the milkmaids’ placards, to the plaster cheetah poking fun at the artificiality of the wealthy, this was an opera rich with symbolism and colour, transcending the stereotype of opera as a tired and forgotten genre.
Perhaps the most important aspect of the production was its portrayal of human relationships. The dynamic between Marcello, Rodolfo, Colline (Damien Pass), and Schaunard (Božidar Smiljanić) showed that no matter how meagre a meal, with a little laughter, it can be fit for royalty. That element of solidarity and protectiveness portrayed between Musetta and Mimì was heart-warming to the very end. The love between these six characters, and their refusal to abandon each other, was truly touching – a man next to me had tears pouring down his face throughout the last act.
In true fin-de-siècle fashion, Puccini created an opera that was both realistic and magical, both tragic and hilarious. It takes the genre to new heights, bringing wit, fast-moving action, and swelling music to audiences old and new. It portrays the power of art to connect and to heal, the importance of companionship in the face of adversity, and how fleeting life can be. Humans ever tend towards nostalgia and romanticising the past, yet ‘La Bohème’ shows that past, present, and future exist alongside each other. It will resonate with audiences as long as young artists struggle to pay rent, as relationships seem unnavigable, as friendships stand the test of time.
If you are unfamiliar with the genre of opera, this makes quite the debut, setting a high standard for performances around the world. The determination of Barbe and Doucet to remain true to the essence of Puccini’s vision, coupled with the mastery of conductor Derek Clark, and the undeniable talent of the cast, makes for a performance that ultimately shows that beauty and light can be found in the most unlikely places.