January 23, 2022

La Boheme at the @RoyalAlbertHall – So much happening you’ll need to go twice #opera

Italian is so beautiful it should be compulsory at school. I had to study things like maths and physics instead, but after seeing Francesca Zambello’s La Boheme I’m going to knuckle down and learn the language of Puccini and librettists Giacosa and Illica. There are surtitles at the Royal Albert Hall of course, but so much is happening on the central stage that you don’t want to flick your eyes away.

Paris-Rouen says a sign on the side of a full size flat-bed railway carriage at one side of the arena. Although everyone speaks Italian we’re in a Paris station. Girders hang in the air like the utilitarian roofs of Gare St-Lazare, or, less romantically, Paddington. The story of romance among the Bohemians has jumped through time – which explains the abstract expressionist painting that Marcello is working on. He’s not a century ahead of the artistic game, but rather it’s the 1940s. A few allied soldiers wander around but Paris is no longer occupied. It is a change of period that works well, giving an explanation for both the poverty and the boisterous carousing. However it brings with it a reminder of the ultimate sacrifices made by millions in the years before and takes some sympathy away from the suffering of our heroes.

The main parts of the opera are taken by different singers on different nights. When I visited young tenor Rame Lahaj was playing the writer Rodolpho with a flashy self-confidence. American soprano Alyson Cambridge impressed as Mimi, drawing the audience into her misery as the opera unfolds whilst Zulimar Lopez-Hernandez portrayed Musetta as a charismatic chancer with a fatal love of the limelight.

There’s no curtain rise to begin proceedings. The audience gradually realise that Rodolpho is already on stage by the tap-tap-tap of his typewriter. There is a creeping natural quietness as the chatting stops, until the lights dim and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, brightly conducted by Oliver Gooch begins. Rodolpho is joined in his top-lit room by ZengZhong Zhou’s ill-dressed Marcello. The portrayal of the garret is excellently achieved by set designer Peter Davidson. It is on a small, higher part of the stage, only accessible via a rickety spiral staircase that descends through the main stage below. Visitors (and land-lords) arrive as though reaching the very top of a long staircase. The illusion is helped further by Andrew Bridge’s lighting design. This throws a greenish grid of shadows across the rest of the stage and well resembles light coming upwards through a glass roof.

There is a large ensemble in the production and they stream to the stage through the audience from every corner of the Albert Hall – except that the Albert Hall has no corners. As the cafe scenes unfold on the main stage, all around the lives of normal Parisians are on display. A man wanders by with singing birds. A cartwheeling muscle man performs for crowds of children (bed-times must have been much later back then). There is so much to look at that it is impossible to take it all in in one visit. A cross-section of Paris is represented on stage, from drunks and beggars to the policemen moving them on when they fall asleep.

In keeping with the new period Rodolpho has been given a typewriter on which to knock out his masterpieces. This however jars with the necessary idea that he is so poor he is willing to burn one of his plays. Surely he would sell the typewriter and return to writing by hand before sacrificing one of his creations?

Costume designer Sue Willmington studied photos by Doisneau and Brassai as well as period magazines in order to recreate the authentic 1940s look. The war is over but privations remain, especially amongst the Bohemians, although seamstresses like Mimi manage to remain fashionable with meagre resources. Whether roller-skating waiters were a big part of 1940s Paris I’m not sure, but they add to the ebullience of the postwar celebrations.

The final scene brought tears to the woman behind me as Mimi lay in bed and her friends talked of a doctor. Stop singing and conserve your energy, I wanted to advise her, but that was forgetting it was opera not real life. This is opera as spectacular, an irrepressible experience on an epic scale.

Until 9th March

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