La Bohème review – seamy pre-war Paris styles this winning autumn revival

Glyndebourne, Sussex
Puccini’s tragic tale is given an expressionist and strikingly stark setting in this touring production that features a wonderful young cast, particularly Bekhzod Davronov’s heartbreaking Rodolfo

Brassaï and Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal collide in Floris Visser’s Glyndebourne staging of Puccini’s La Bohème, revived for the autumn tour by Simon Iorio, and first seen at this summer’s festival. Updating the opera to the 1940s, Visser eschews the naturalistic approach favoured by most directors in favour of something altogether more expressionist and stark.

Dieuweke van Reij’s monochrome unit set, overtly indebted to the photography of the period, shows a cobbled street vanishing into darkness with only the merest hints of a garret, café or tollgate to tell us where we are. The tall, gaunt figure of Death himself, meanwhile, played by Peter Van Hulle, stalks the stage. Gabriella Reyes’s terrified Mimi, whom he comes to claim at the end, can see him throughout, though Bekhzod Davronov’s Rodolfo cannot. Nor, most of the time, can the other characters, though in a moment of horrible irony, he materialises in front of everyone as the toy seller Parpignol in Act II, calmly handing out red balloons to a group of children, before overseeing the subsequent military parade, now not so much a celebration as a macabre march to the abyss. It’s all admirably sombre and unsentimental, even if the underlying ideas are stretched a bit too thin.

Given by a young ensemble cast, the performance, though, is really lovely. Davronov, an outstanding Rodolfo, is boyishly ardent, caught off balance by the depth of his own feelings throughout, and utterly heartbreaking at the end. This is a fantastic voice, too, not massive, but wonderfully elegant, and easy in its upper registers. Reyes sings with great depth of feeling and warmth of tone: Mi Chiamano Mimì sounds particularly beautiful. Luthando Qave, who played Schaunard during the festival, makes a fine, handsome-sounding Marcello opposite Mariam Battistelli’s self-assured, provocative Musetta. Luvuyo Mbundu is now the rather self-dramatising Schaunard here, while William Thomas, looking a bit like the young Jean-Paul Sartre, is the funny, touching Colline. Rory Macdonald, meanwhile, conducts with great energy and passion, and the playing and choral singing are first rate.

• At Glyndebourne until 29 October, then touring.


Tim Ashley

The GuardianTramp

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