Annabel Arden’s new production of La Bohème for Welsh National Opera debuted in June, and appeared in Birmingham shortly afterwards. Now, barely five months later, it’s back, with a very similar cast. First impressions of Arden’s production were of a richly-characterised ensemble drama, in a setting that cooled from magical (a winter Paris evoked in Stephen Brimson Lewis’s silvery line-drawings) to harshly realistic.
On a second viewing, this central idea still worked powerfully, although the enchanted atmosphere of the first two acts is clearly more fragile than first appeared. The postcard-like backdrop of the Pont des Arts that gave an authentically Parisian flavour to Act 2 seemed to have vanished altogether.
More problematically, conductor Simon Philippo and the excellent WNO orchestra seemed to be enjoying themselves slightly too much in the first two acts; an easy mistake to make, but one which left Giselle Allen (as Mimi – the principal change from June’s cast) sounding forced. Yet she gave a compellingly individual performance; an awkward, anxious Mimi, always a couple of paces behind Alex Vicens’s impulsive Rodolfo. Unusually for Bohème, you genuinely believed that this was a couple who simply couldn’t live either with or without each other.
Everyone sounded more stable by Act 3, and the production’s greatest strength shone through – the glorious singing and warmly believable ensemble performance of a cast who’ve clearly grown together. David Kempster’s big-hearted Marcello was its anchor; and his bromance with Rodolfo emerged as the piece’s central relationship, though Daniel Grice was one of the most likeable Schaunards we’ve heard, and Kate Valentine’s magnificently sensuous Musetta stopped the show exactly as she should. A wonderful team: catch them while you can.