One of the most popular and accessible operas of all time, La Bohème appeals to the Bohemian in all of us: the person who ranks passion above convention, who enjoys wit more than wealth and rates the power of art above the power of the army. The person who claims they would rather perish penniless but in love, than die wrapped in mink but alone. In Desperate Housewives terms, it’s more Susan than Gabrielle.
Puccini’s story brings four such characters to life: the poet Rodolfo, his great love the terminally ill seamstress Mimi, the charismatic singer Musetta and her on/off lover, the painter Marcello. The four of them carouse in the bars of Paris when they can afford to, and in Marcello’s garret when they can’t.
As a bitter winter draws in, Mimi’s health worsens, and she and Rodolfo decide she would be better off finding herself a sugar daddy. But this being opera and they being Bohemian, the force of their passion prevails and Mimi draws her last breath in true Bohemian fashion – penniless but in love, surrounded by her friends. Cue tears.
Coupled with snow scenes, live marching bands and the supremely evocative, elegant, almost sepia-tinted sets of award-winning designer Michael Mitchell, this promises to be a very exciting production. Set in a Paris newly liberated from the Nazis, the sense of world change and philosophical enlightenment is as vivid as the physical and mental scars of recent war. Despite the cold and the hunger and the penury, there is a new future on the horizon, embodied by the American GIs – brazenly flashy in their shiny Jeeps. A ‘free’ future where ideas and ideals are shared and life is no longer a struggle.
This is an opera chock-a-block with famous arias, soaring ensembles and heart-warming moments that make Puccini’s characters some of the most loveable in opera. Yet for the modern director there are still plenty of challenges, not the least of which is satisfying a modern audience.
At the age of just 33 Matthew Wild is in the hot seat as the director of this revival of Christine Crouse’s production. Despite his relative youth he has plenty of directorial experience under his belt, and is not shy to take a fresh angle on a tried and tested piece, as he demonstrated all too clearly with his acclaimed Hong Kong kung-fu production of this year’s Shakespeare in the Park, The Comedy of Errors. As the official dramaturge (theatrical advisor) at Cape Town Opera (CTO) since 2010, he has been involved with a number of shows, but La Bohème is his first major production for the company.
While unlikely to involve any kung-fu, Wild’s interpretation is certain to imbue the production with a great vitality. “One of the reasons this opera is so loved” he says, “is because of its terrific sense of life, of joie de vivre, and a lot of comedy along the way.” It’s a piece “full of joy and youth and life” despite its tragic ending.
And while opera is occasionally criticised for its singers having lark-like voices but leaden charisma, Wild is undaunted. He is working with a new cast, all of them relatively young, but many of whom have already had success with CTO in other roles. By discussing with them their own thoughts and ideas he is working with each of the cast members to connect with the character they play – the essential first step towards quality acting. He is also working on their facial and bodily expressions which, he explains, is no small task given the contortions into which some singers have to twist themselves in order to belt out a particular note.
Wild is also happy to refute the common misconception that elegant heroines are often played by ladies of not insubstantial proportions. In La Bohème in particular, it would certainly be asking the audience to push their suspension of disbelief to its limits if the soprano playing the role of the delicate, consumptive Mimi was a Plus-size Portia. “Wagnerian or Verdian heroines, maybe,” says Wild. “But most of the famous Mimis of the last 50 years – Callas, de los Angeles, Scotto, Freni, Ricciarelli, Cotrubas, Gheorghiu, Netrebko – have been thin and gorgeous.”
So too, the part of Mimi in this production is to be taken by someone who is as light on her feet as she is on the ear – rising star Nozuko Teto, fresh back from Italy where she has been studying with Mirella Freni, a soprano famous for playing Mimi, not least opposite a young Pavarotti. And with the highly acclaimed, trim and dapper tenor Given Nkosi playing Rodolfo, this should be one believable romance.
Yet it is the Musetta character that can expect the biggest response from the audience. Described by Mitchell and Wild as a Marlene Dietrich-like ‘tart with a heart’ Musetta inevitably gets the best costumes and the chance to shine in the limelight. Unlike Nkosi and Teto, soprano Siphamandla Yakupa has not been studying overseas, but surely that is just a matter of time. Anyone who saw her luminous portrayal of Marzelline in Fidelio at the Castle at the beginning of March will recognize that Yakupa is one opera singer who can engage an audience on every level.
And so a sense of revival is brewing in the air, both on set and off. Can Wild pull off a revitalized production that will satisfy traditionalists while stimulating a love of opera in a whole new generation? Can the cast stand up to the scrutiny of a modern audience? Will Mimi pull through this time?
There’s only one way to find out, and we’re betting it’ll be a Bohemian rhapsody.
by Daisy Ions and Maike Gevers