Glyndebourne Festival Opera, ★★★★
It seems to matter more to Floris Visser that an audience should recognise his personal imprint, than whether he’s served a work as it deserves. In an interview about his production of Bohème, this Dutch director asserts that he’s ‘beaten Puccini at his own game’ by finding three images which allow him to probe the work in a ‘metaphysical’ way which goes deeper than anyone has gone before.
First, Mimi’s candle in Act One stands for her life, and when it stops burning, she stops breathing. Secondly, she is stalked throughout by a silent figure – Death. And third, the whole action unfolds on one set which is based on a scene Visser found in Paris: a cobbled street leading down into darkness, and bearing the name Passage d’Enfer – ‘the way to the underworld’. ‘This one street,’ says Visser, ‘embodied our entire idea.’
Designer Dieuweke Van Reij’s sooty cobbled street may recall the great photographer Brassai, but this opera needs to work on bold and brilliant contrasts, notably between the threadbare garret and the glittering Café Momus. Visser’s café consists of a few chairs and tables hurriedly spread across the street; in Act Three the boys have been evicted and are bivouacking by the roadside.
Death walks like a somnambulist, and at one point is oddly recast as a smiling balloon vendor. Sometimes Mimi acknowledges his presence; sometimes he makes a lunge at her. At one point the whole cast brandish placards bearing the image of a skull. And if Visser’s basic strategy is questionable, the Café Momus scene – which ought to be both comic and dramatic – is an unfocused directorial mess. The closing imagery has a satisfyingly cinematic quality – it’s a pity Visser didn’t explore that avenue further.
Mimì (Yaritza Véliz), Parpignol (Christopher Lemmings), Colline (Ivo Stanchev), Schaunard (Luthando Qave), Rodolfo (Sehoon Moon), Marcello (Daniel Scofield) and the Glyndebourne Chorus ©Richard Hubert Smith
So why four stars? For the performances, and for conductor Jordan de Souza’s sensitive and subtle support. Led by a forceful Marcello (Daniel Scofield) and a charismatic Schaunard (Luthando Qave), the high jinks work well, as does Colline’s aria to his coat (Ivo Stanchev), while Vuvu Mpofu’s moody Musetta galvanises and goads maddeningly as she should.
But the glory of this show lies in the performances of South Korean tenor Sehoon Moon as Rodolfo and Chilean soprano Yaritza Veliz as Mimi. The sweet plangency of his sound makes a lovely foil for the beauty of her gorgeously expressive singing, and one believes in their relationship every step of the way. Vaut le voyage.