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A night at Glyndebourne Part I: The Opera – Puccini’s La bohème

There is nothing quite so wonderful as a summer evening at the opera. Don’t get me wrong, opera can be pretty cosy in the middle of the winter too, but there is something about the combined smells of champagne, Pimm’s and fresh grass, the swish of long luxurious dresses against the green tints of summer, and the descent into long, light evenings at the end of the performance that make summer operas a wholly more enchanting affair. And no where is this more true than at the Glyndebourne Opera House in East Sussex.

Glyndebourne opera house

Ekaterina Scherbachenko as Mimi (Photo: Robert Workman)

Growing up in Sussex, I was always aware of an aura of elegance surrounding Glyndebourne. Most summers, my parents would suddenly emerge from their bedroom exceptionally smartly dressed, my father in black tie, and my mother is taffeta and jewels. They would engage the babysitting services of my grandmother while they headed off to Glyndebourne, with a picnic basket in hand and some fold up furniture to boot. A few years later, when old enough to properly appreciate the occasion (and thus not waste the exorbitant ticket prices) I was lucky enough to make my first trip to Glyndebourne. The place astounded me. It has to be one of the most idyllic settings I have ever set my eyes upon. A lush green landscape of rolling hills, a field echoing with the gentle calls of sheep, a stream surrounded by willows, and in the middle of it all, an architecturally thrilling opera house – part modern, a stylish round red-brick creation, and part old manor house. Even now, with their new ultra-environmental wind turbine installed, the place is a feast for the eyes.

Christmas festivities at the end of Act II (Photo: Robert Workman)

A night at Glyndebourne opera is almost like stepping back in time – as people dress up to nines, with a  strict dress code of black tie and formal dresses being unanimously imposed, and the opera-goers sit out on the lawn with picnics set up, not just on rugs, but with furniture imported (some even bring tablecloths and vases of flowers!) – the whole occasion appears to represent a last bastion of civilised society – utterly polite, completely sophisticated and awfully quite “English”.  There’s much to say about all of this, and in tomorrow’s post I will tell you all about the dining at Glyndebourne. But for today, I’m sticking to the opera which was the pull of our visit in the first place – Glyndebourne’s 2012 performance of Puccini’s La bohème.

Mimi in her last moments (Photo: Robert Workman)

The opera is familiar to many opera-lovers. It doesn’t contain some of Puccini’s most memorable arias, but the score is at all times opulent, dramatic and pretty stirring throughout – at times it was almost stressfully upsetting. The story, based on the book by Henri Murger which was in turn brought to life by librettists Illica and Giacosa, is a simple, and now well-known tale – the story of an impoverished writer in Paris who falls in love with an equally penniless heroine who then dies from tuberculosis leaving said writer devastated right at the moment when the curtain falls. Lovers of Baz Luhrman’s Moulin Rouge will probably recognise the story – it was, after all, based on Murger’s tale. It’s a simple tale of love in a cold climate, where passion provides the only warmth, and attempts to transcends the ravages of poverty only to then fall victim to the destruction of an incurable illness which only poverty, and desperation could have caused. It’s highly tragic, but utterly romantic, and all of this is helped of course by the intended backdrop of the winding-streets of Paris’ idyllic, cobbled Latin Quarter.

Michael Sumuel, David Lomeli, Andrei Bondarenko, Nahuel Di Perro (Photo: Robert Workman)

Move to Glyndebourne’s production however, originally directed by Davud McVicar and now revitalised for the 2012 festival, and the setting has been transported not to the Marais or Montmartre, but to London’s tatty present-day Soho. Thus we have policemen running after thieves, road sweepers, security men, Christmas shoppers adorned with bags from Harrods and Selfridges, and even what looked like the entrance to the underground. It’s a bold move which isn’t overly consistent with the libretto, which continues to talk of the view of Paris rooftops, nor the rousing drama and opulence of the score. However it is at least a novel retelling of the story – it’s just difficult perhaps to get all romantic about the lovers, Rodolfo and Mimi, when Rodolfo is dressed in a hoodie, and Mimi in jeans. But as David Cameron would have it, we should all be “hugging hoodies”- so why not stage them in a opera too?

David Lomeli as Rodolfo and Ekaterina Scherbachenko as Mimi (Photo: Robert Workman)

While the tatty studio flat of Rodolfo and his artist friend, full of rubbish and constructed from what resembles crumbling concrete and steel, isn’t exactly easy on the eye, the sound emanating from the opera singers themselves was certainly easy on the ears. David Lomeli as Rodolfo produced an incredible, rich and rounded sound – his aria in Act 1 (Che Gelida Manina – Your Tiny Hand Is Frozen) was exquisite and immediately had my eyes filling up. Meanwhile, Ekaterina Scherbachenko made an equally credible Mimi, with the earnest demeanor and visible courage expected of the character, but it was a little disconcerting when, upon completing her first aria with Rodolfo, she suddenly trailed off just before the top note – I wonder whether she tripped down a step when heading off stage?! High praise has to be reserved for Irina Iordachescu as Musetta who played the cocky femme fatale with swagger and style, greatly enhanced no doubt by a pair of Louboutin boots and a very sparkly top.

Irina Iordachescu as Musetta and Donald Maxwell as Alcindoro (Photo: Robert Workman)

The orchestra sounded wonderful throughout, although at times the cast struggled to hold their own against the rousing crescendos of the score. We also had the benefit of being able to see the orchestra from our seat on the circle, which greatly enhanced the overall experience – at least when I could see them. For the problem , but also the great attraction of this opera is that it is so bloody sad, with the inevitable result that my eyes were constantly blurring with tears. As if it wasn’t bad enough that the superb resonance of David Lomeli’s aria had me crying in Act 1, the end of the opera just completely devastated me. I found it so utterly traumatic that I struggled to talk for about 5 minutes after the curtain came down. Which just goes to show, London or Paris, top hat or hoodie, when you get a good orchestra, a good conductor and great singers, Puccini’s score has the enduring power to stir up its audience and tap into the rawest of emotions, taking them on a rollercoaster with a power to enthrall, charm, and ultimately, upset. Now that’s true operatic genius, and it is a genius which the Glyndebourne experience helped to enhance to new levels of dramatic intensity, with a dash of pleasing english reserve to boot, naturally.

Mimi: close to death (Photo: Robert Workman)

La bohème is on until 31 July – try to get tickets – if you can. 

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. “Lovers of Baz Luhrman’s Moulin Rouge will probably recognise the story”
    I seem to remember seeing an Opera Australia production of this opera, updated to the 1950s, which I think was directed by Baz Luhrman. I’m pretty sure David Hobson was Rudolfo and Cheryl Barker was Mimi. I’m not, in general, a fan of updating but I greatly enjoyed that production.
    I’m not sure that I can agree with you about “La Boheme” not containing some of Puccini’s most memorable arias though. You can hardly get more memorable than “Mi chiamano Mimi”…
    Now that you’ve put me in the mood, I shall probably revise my decision NOT to go and see “La Boheme” at the Sultan’s Pool in Jerusalem this September (even though the acoustics there are atrocious for opera…)

    July 6, 2012
    • delacybrown #

      Fantastic! So glad I inspired you – catch an opera whenever you can – that’s my view. It’s true – the score is pretty spectacular, but I still have trouble calling it to mind – I always get the arias from Madame Butterfly stuck in my head!

      Thanks a lot for the comment!

      July 6, 2012
  2. oh great interesting article show ur writing skills

    July 8, 2012
  3. James #

    I love David McVicar’s Boheme, and think contrast of the gritty modern setting just underscores the soaring lyricism of the score. After all the style of opera he wrote in is called “verismo”. The original setting in turn of the century Paris just has too many picturesque and chocolate boxy associations for us now. If you didn’t feel that the characters in it were genuinely freezing cold, hungry, seriously ill, and broke, there would be a temptation to view them as a slightly irritating bunch of self obsessed teenagers. Fabulous show.

    I advise going to see this with industrial quantities of Kleenex.

    July 10, 2012
    • delacybrown #

      The Kleenex would have come in handy for me! The ending was devastatingly sad! Thanks for reading and for your comment!

      July 10, 2012

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. A night at Glyndebourne Part 2: Damp Grounds; Delicious Dinner | The Daily Norm
  2. Ravel at Glyndebourne: the double-dip opera-session | The Daily Norm

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