Everything that’s wrong with Stewart Laing’s adaptation and direction of Puccini’s immensely popular 1896 opera La Boheme — performed in Glasgow by the usually superb Scottish Opera — seems to be a consequence of the dramatic modernisation to which it has been subjected. That sounds like there’s a lot that’s bad, which isn’t true, really — one aspect in particular doesn’t work, and its general wrongness permeates the rest of an otherwise fine and sometimes excellent production: the result is a slightly confused and occasionally bittersweet pill.
Laing’s fundamental mistake is in believing that the prevailing cultural atmosphere of nineteenth-century bohemian Paris could be satisfactorily evoked by a more contemporary New York hipster scene. What was already a fairly insubstantial story — redeemed by Puccini’s powerful score — has been rendered almost non-existent by the crippling emotional constraints of modernity, and all of the male leads — supposedly a group of writers, philosophers and artists — are unconvincing as anything other than boorish pseudo-intellectuals whose lives we are given no good reason to invest in.
Chief amongst them is Rodolfo (Avi Klemberg), a writer, who by the end of the first act has fallen in love with upstairs neighbour Mimi (Celine Byrne). The dramatic and romantic pinnacle of Act I should, in an ideal world, be O Soave Fanciulla, a heartfelt, rousing duet in which the couple proclaim their mutual adoration. Byrne, who is outstanding throughout, brings real commitment to the scene, but Klemberg delivers his lines without passion or urgency — a situation not helped by uniformly prosaic and unimaginative supertitles and some shaky acoustics for the first half-hour.
Things pick up in Act II, which has been transported to an über-cool art gallery from its original, somewhat less glamorous setting, with dynamic crowd scenes, improved depth of sound and a quicker pace — and we’re also introduced to Musetta (Nadine Livingston), the former beau of Rodolfo’s friend Marcello, who steals the show with diva-esque antics and fantastic stage presence.
When the inevitable final-act tragedy arrives, it feels grating (however expected): the setting and characters simply aren’t imbued with the pathos or richness of feeling required in order for an audience to care, and when Rodolfo declares to Marcello that he’s scared and thinks Mimi is dying, he may as well be offering his buddy another beer, for all the lack of sentiment.
In the hands of conductor Francesco Corti, the Orchestra of Scottish Opera give a terrific rendition of Puccini’s music, which really leads one to the conclusion that this is a production best enjoyed with eyes firmly closed. As well as a disappointing translation of Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa’s original libretto, staging (Act II excepted) is truly dismal — the large space is made to feel bland and empty.
Byrne’s first-rate performance only throws into sharper relief the deficit in Klemberg’s — although in fairness, this is largely because of how little he is given to work with. Mimi makes ornamental fake flowers and Rodolfo is a poet — it should be the other way around.