The meaning of Late Romantic doesn’t mean arriving at the opera halfway through the first act. It refers to the fact that La Boheme was written at a time of fascination with the grittiness and chaos of everyday reality.
Puccini’s opera of love and suffering, written in 1895, is presented by Cape Town Opera under director Matthew Wild, in a late-60s-early-1970s setting, as reflected upon by an old man, Marcello, whose art exhibition is about to open in a contemporary gallery in the 21st century. The gallery is cool, grey and linear, but inside a box are Marcello’s artworks and also his memories.
One of the boxes opens to reveal a hippy-ish little apartment where money is thin, cold is thick, and love and hope are neglected in the ashtray.
The story is witnessed in a series of flashbacks or mental fugue states of disorientation by the old Marcello – very finely played by Dr Brad Leibl, with the feeling, mannerisms and tetchiness of a dementia-ridden artist.
The stage design is competent and consistent, but for me, when Rodolfo and Mimi began their duet, it disappeared into the background like used tinsel. The enormity of their harmony and beauty as individual singers, mingling in this duet, was heart-stopping. The entire audience sat immobile.
Galeano Salas as Rodolfo won us over the minute we heard his effortless voice. There is no dissonance in his portrayal of Rodolfo: he is perfect for the role. Rodolfo is an easy-to-love character, hiding Mimi’s key so she will stay a bit longer. Mimi herself (South African born Sarah-Jane Brandon) is a delight, her sound full and gorgeous. The couple were dressed in warm colours – a rich Madonna-like blue for Mimi, and a warm honey brown coat for Rodolfo, a far cry from the bleached correctness of the contemporary set. The music, their love for each other and their stage chemistry filled the auditorium with warmth.
The secondary roles, Marcello the young man and his mistress Musetta, were engaging. William Berger as Marcello is confident and strong, but Musetta (Brittany Smith) while sweet-voiced and impassioned, was less memorable on this occasion.
It was also a delight to see Aviva Pelham on stage as the older Musetta (partner to the older Marcello) and to witness her doting care for him. She doesn’t have a singing part, but it would have been lovely to hear her. The children’s chorus was capable and the audience gave them warm applause – and the Cape Town Opera Chorus made a short appearance at the end. The Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra, under the baton of Jeremy Silver, was wonderful to hear, very smooth and rich.
Matthew Wild’s determination to create contemporary looks for the opera led to the oversight of a large disco ball temporarily blinding members of the audience as it caught the light – and the double duet of the two couples became cacophonous at one stage, apparently striving for some modern atonalism – or perhaps it wasn’t deliberate. Either way it was out of keeping with the romanticism of the music.
Minor gripes aside, this production is well held together – a credit to the director, given the layers, the choruses and the novelties he has added. I particularly enjoyed the sad end of Mimi being made more profound by her gesture to Marcello to join her as she slipped away. Puccini would love this expansion of the heart.
Pauline de Villiers
Cape Town Opera’s La Boheme runs at The Artscape Opera House 14 to 22 February 2020.