Theatre Review: La Boheme

So about a month ago, thanks to a work friend with a spare ticket, I went to see Ellen Kent’s staging of Puccini’s La Boheme at Aylesbury’s Waterside Theatre on a weeknight.

I should probably be clear that I know virtually nothing about opera, despite the Resident Grammarian’s best efforts. I have seen some Gilbert and Sullivan and I have watched Jesus Christ Superstar on TV, but neither of these really count in my mind since they are sung in English and you can hear what the words are.

Sung in Italian and set in Paris, La Boheme first premiered in 1896, which is (I think) interestingly late for opera. Our Protagonist is bohemian Rodolfo, who along with his bohemian pals is romantically poor owing to the fact that he cannot sell any of his writing. One evening, he meets the meek and retiring Mimi, who has lost her key, and is instantly smitten. The subsequent three acts follow various romantic reversals as it becomes gradually apparent that Mimi has that insidiously romanticised disease, consumption (Victorian culture being obsessed with female consumptive bodies), and Rodolfo struggles with the fact that a wealthier suitor will have more money to buy her medicine.

I feel like the word that best sums up my thoughts about La Boheme is “quotidian”; and this means both good and bad things. My favourite parts of it were those that celebrated the often-vibrant life of the city: the choruses of milkmaids, the bohemians carousing in their lodgings, the lively crowd scene featuring peddlers and children and townsfolk. It’s a story about the ordinary people (Mimi, for example, is a seamstress), raised into importance by the lavishness of opera.

By the same token, though, I felt that the emphasis of the narrative was actually on the wrong characters: Mimi is a typically colourless Victorian “angel-in-the-house”, and though Rodolfo has slightly rakish qualities he is in general the least interesting bohemian. Much more interesting is Musetta, the girlfriend of another of the bohemians, who is flirtatious, cheerfully interested in sex with multiple partners, loyal, empathetic and never judged by the narrative for any of these things; but she gets short shrift as a supporting character.

Partly the production’s general feeling of unremarkableness is, I suspect, down to the staging: certainly there’s little chemistry between the two leads, and as a whole the production feels conventional (perhaps necessarily, given the fact that it’s effectively touring the provinces). But partly it’s because the music is not terribly interesting; as the Resident Grammarian pointed out, there’s not much in the way of tunes in the scoring, no rousing numbers or clever melodies. The fact that there’s very little romantic tension in the story doesn’t help either.

It’s a perfectly nice evening out at a local theatre (next showing is in Richmond on Wednesday), perhaps with some ice cream and a glass of wine; just not, perhaps, the theatrical event of the season.

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