Scottish Opera have been in cracking form this season under the direction of their new Music Director, Stuart Stratford. They conclude their season with a new production of one of opera’s greatest works, Puccini’s La bohème. This should be a safe bet. Yet, this new production by director Renaud Doucet and designer André Barbe has taken a major risk by updating this classic, and by adding some doubtful additional music and some theatrical tricks.
La bohème, according to composer Puccini, begins with a great orchestral flourish that takes you straight into the world of the four bohemians in their apartment in Montmartre. However, this production begins in 1920s Paris, with tourists wandering round the city to the tunes played by an accordion player (who pops up again at the opening of the last act), then some notes of Puccini play on a wind up gramophone, and finally, together with clever lighting and scene shifting, Puccini’s opening orchestral flourish signifies the real start of the opera.
This undermines Puccini’s dramatic opening, and although the production is very clever with lots of detailed business and more people on stage than Scottish Opera has had there for many years, it is perhaps too clever by half. The busy action on the stage often distracts from the music and the singing, and occasionally undermines the purpose of the opera.
The second problem with this production is the singing. Scottish Opera can’t afford the greatest singers of our era and instead tends to cast young singers on the way up. This usually works well, but here the casting hasn’t quite succeeded. Luis Gomes as Rodolfo has a fresh voice, but at times is a little wobbly in his arias, and Hye-Youn Lee (Mimi), a young Korean soprano, has a very pure and powerful voice, but occasionally it cracks. The other cast members are very decent, but La bohème relies on a good Rodolfo and Mimi, and here it doesn’t quite deliver.
The final problem with this production is the orchestra, under the baton of Stratford. Although it plays Puccini’s great music splendidly, it tends to overpower the singers at times. This question of balance is key to good opera, and has been a problem in other Scottish Opera productions this season.
Having said all that, La bohème is still an enjoyable evening out and gets a good reception tonight from the full-house at the Theatre Royal Glasgow. It will be touring to Aberdeen, Inverness and Edinburgh.