CAPE TOWN OPERA, Artscape Opera House; Puccini: La Bohème; with Nozuko Teto, Given Nkosi, Owen Metsileng, Siphamandla Yakupa, Xolela Sixaba, Amos Nomnabo, Monde Masimini; Cape Philharmonic, Cape Town Opera Chorus and Children’s Chorus; conducted by Jeremy Silver, directed by Matthew Wild, designed by Michael Mitchell, lighting by Nicholas Tilney. Until May 16. DEON IRISH reviews.
EVERY time I leave an auditorium at the conclusion of another La Bohème, I am quite decided that this is the perfect opera. Of course, other works vie for that title: but I really do doubt that there is another that engenders such an overall sense of gratification.
The libretto is multi-faceted and engrossing and Puccini’s score superb. Given as attractive a staging as this Christine Crouse production, the combination is theatrically alluring. Reviewing the opening night of this production in 2006, I described it as one of the most attractive productions mounted in Cape Town in recent years. The revival certainly maintains that status.
The action is set in the recently liberated Paris on Christmas eve, 1944. The quartet of Bohemian artists are accordingly still subject to the deprivations of poverty and wartime rationing, but are also exhilarated by a newly-won social freedom. Forget the cold and the paucity of food: they are artists and Christmas eve is a cause for celebration, especially given the presence of the liberating Americans.
The sets are beautifully conceived, with detailed cinematic designs. The Bohemians’ loft is a great industrial space, with ranks of factory windows frosted over in the first act, autumnally golden in the final. The second act is set in a terraced street in Montmartre; the third act has been moved from the city gate of the libretto to an evocative train station, an appropriate substitution, given the chosen period.
Costuming is a loving re-creation of period and the characters are certainly more appropriately dressed for a freezing winter’s evening this time round – although Marcello’s short-sleeved, open-necked shirt and wide open doors in the opening scene were distracting.
Wild has directed with a light touch. There is fluent movement and ebullient action – particularly in the café scene – and in visual terms, the tale unfolds at a brisk trot. But the spontaneity is testimony to a great deal of clever plotting and rehearsal, which also shows in the finely nuanced acting he obtains from most of the principal singers.
Teto portrays Mimì with an endearing fragility that belies her vocal strengths. She has a silky lyric soprano, with a pleasing projection throughout the range and finely adjusted intonation. Her sense of ensemble is assured and there was no sign of the shortness of breath noted in her Suor Angelica of last year. The first act arias were lovely; but it was her account of the more vocally and dramatically challenging third act that proved her personal high point.
She is certainly helped by having the engaging and musically considerate co-star Nkosi, who excels as the amorous poet, Rodolfo. This young tenor has grown; whereas a top C flat was a hurdle for his Italian tenor in Rosenkavalier, he tosses off the top C of this role with a bravura that is close to the genuine Italian product. But the part is not all top notes and it is in the lower reaches that he is occasionally muffled under Puccini’s orchestration.
Metsileng is the surprise of the evening, delivering his role of the painter, Marcello, with charm and superior vocal attributes. It’s a big role: he opens the action with his Questo Mar Rosso and is pivotal to the action in the next two acts. His duet with Mimì in the third act, including a richly rounded high F, was splendidly handled.
As his on-off girlfriend, Musetta, Yakupa is a determined vamp – but perhaps a touch too brittle for the ambiguity inherent in the character.
The lesser roles were sung confidently and convincingly. The chorus contributed an exuberant presence as did the children’s chorus, drawn from Herschel and Western Province preparatory schools.
The Cape Philharmonic Orchestra (CPO) delivered a fine reading of the demanding score, responding to Silver’s musical understanding and urgent tempi with fine balances and generally good ensemble. From my rather distant vantage point I could not see the conductor, but I suspect the odd lapses of ensemble arose from a failure to divide the beat. But he maintained a splendid communication with the stage and even the trickiest passages of fragmented conversations – at the breakneck tempi – came through cohesively.
It was a pity that the surtitles were almost illegible, which defeated the purpose of providing a translation. But even for those who do not know the Italian, this remains a lovely experience and an ideal choice for a first-time opera experience. You won’t find a nicer opera, or a more attractive staging, to commence a lifelong passion.
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