The week in classical: La bohème; Madama Butterfly; The Excursions of Mr Brouček – review

Glyndebourne festival, Lewes; Royal Opera House, London; Grange Park Opera, West Horsley
Puccini’s tale of doomed love is burdened by an oppressive set and a new character, but elsewhere his Japanese tragedy is brilliantly performed. Meanwhile Janáček’s farcical landlord is a hoot

One mystery of opera production, against the laws of arithmetic, is that addition can end up as subtraction. Glyndebourne festival’s new La bohème (1896) is full of ideas but they diminish a work already entire of itself. Staged by the director Floris Visser, coming on wings of promise from Dutch National Opera and elsewhere, it is Glyndebourne’s first new bohème for more than two decades. Visser sidesteps Puccini’s detailed stage directions and no one should object to that. A fresh approach is welcome if it convinces. So the familiar garret, Latin Quarter and city barrier are replaced by a fixed-set, high-walled cobbled street which recedes to a black horizon. Your imagination does the rest.

This oppressive linear space cramps the action, however, and results in a confused relationship between the key characters which never finds clarity. The only interruption to countless shades of grey (designs by Dieuweke van Reij and team, with effective lighting by Alex Brok) is some spot colour: sinister red balloons, Mimì’s pink beret, and a spray of lavish pink blossoms which miraculously grow out of a stack of chairs. Are they the false flowers Mimì the seamstress makes from fabric? An omnipresent figure in a long overcoat, yes Death himself (Christopher Lemmings), pulls a tarpaulin aside to reveal these flowers and you know this is a bad sign, if not a big symbol. If Puccini had needed Death in the cast list he surely would have created the character. Instead he managed, quite brilliantly, with a musical interplay of optimism and anguish, to stain it progressively into every note, bar, change of harmony or flicker of counterpoint, of the score.

The joyous musical and physical crisscrossing of street-sellers, shoppers, children in the Act 2 Cafe Momus Christmas Eve scene, was heartily sung but its usual exuberance was absent. The singing was of a high standard, with a lovely Rodolfo in Sehoon Moon (replacing Long Long, held up by visa delays but arriving shortly). His voice is pure and lyrical, his stage manner boyish and sympathetic. As Mimì, Yaritza Véliz, a former Royal Opera House Jette Parker young artist, sang powerfully and mostly securely, but the production did little to illuminate her fragile characterisation. Daniel Scofield as Marcello and Vuvu Mpofu’s sparky Musetta made an impression. Richard Suart, with the evening’s best Italian, gave significance to the tiny part of Benoît. The London Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Jordan de Souza, was as ever reliable but sounded slightly subdued. For the record, an enthusiastic first night audience cheered. Misgivings yes, but bohème, with many performances ahead at Glyndebourne, is always worth the journey.

Hearing Puccini’s Madama Butterfly (1904), in a revival at the Royal Opera House, a few nights later, was a reminder of the distance the composer travelled between these two popular masterpieces. Dan Ettinger conducted, with the ROH orchestra and cast on alert, explosive form (top work from brass and percussion). Freddie De Tommaso, tenor of the moment, brought unusual emotion to the self-serving Pinkerton. Lucas Meacham, ashamed and appalled as Sharpless, and Patricia Bardon as the Cassandra-like maid, Suzuki, excelled. Lianna Haroutounian, in the title role, devastated in her ever more abandoned but skilled performance, broken yet fearless.

The interest here, in Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier’s 2002 production, is the announced attempt to address the work’s presentation of Japan. Given calls in some quarters for the work to be cancelled, and at the same time its enormous box office value, the ROH had no choice but to call in the experts. The revival director, Daniel Dooner, worked with a Japanese movement director (Sonoko Kamimura) and many adjustments to gesture, makeup and costumes were made. From the back of the stalls these changes were subtle indeed. If it gives new credence to the opera, and helps address racial stereotyping, we can only applaud. No opera can make a country or its history “authentic”. The real truth in this work – depicted all too clearly and shockingly by Puccini – is the behaviour of a callous, imperialistic male towards a vulnerable 15-year-old girl of another culture. Every encounter with this work is a reminder of its genius.

Peter Hoare as Brouček and Fflur Wyn as Malinka in The Excursions of Mr Brouček.
Peter Hoare as Brouček and Fflur Wyn as Malinka in The Excursions of Mr Brouček. Photograph: Marc Brenner

If you have a strong grip on the Hussite rebellion against the Holy Roman empire – no modesty please – Janáček’s fifth opera may be crystal clear. The slouches among us struggle. The work’s full title indicates its challenges: The Excursions of Mr Brouček to the Moon and to the 15th Century (1920). The text was cooked up by seven librettists, based on two Czech novellas. That multiplicity is riven through the opera. Grange Park Opera opened its 2022 season with Brouček in surely the most bizarre, outlandish and crazy production of any opera since the battle of Lipany (Don’t remember? 1434).

David Pountney, as director and translator, understands this repertoire (he has directed the entire Janáček cycle). In essence, Brouček is a dissatisfied, philistine landlord whose desires focus on beer and sausages. By inebriated means, he finds himself first on the moon, then in the 15th century. Scenes change rapidly, from lunar landscape to Hussite past (lively designs by Leslie Travers and Marie-Jeanne Lecca; lighting by Tim Mitchell). The joke, leavened by up-to-date Boris references, goes on too long but Janáček’s music is irresistible. The BBC Concert Orchestra, conducted by George Jackson, played with robust flair. A deluxe British cast, led by an incomparable Peter Hoare, made light of Janáček’s taxing vocal lines, and included Fflur Wynne, Mark Le Brocq, Andrew Shore, Clive Bayley, Anne-Marie Owens and Adrian Thompson. The only way to approach this oddity is to cast off the bondage of logic or meaning and embrace your inner zen. Breathe deeply. Then it all makes perfect sense.

Star ratings (out of five)
La bohème ★★★
Madama Butterfly ★★★★
The Excursions of Mr Brouček ★★★★

La bohème is at the Glyndebourne festival until 14 August; Madama Butterfly is at the Royal Opera House until 6 July; The Excursions of Mr Brouček is at Grange Park Opera until 7 July


Fiona Maddocks

The GuardianTramp

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