The Royal Opera House’s Richard Jones takes a realist approach to Puccini’s classic opera. Whilst the audience is thrilled by the Parisian artisans’ spontaneous lives, this production successfully captures the grittiness and severity of true 19th century Bohemian living. Flawlessly balanced, the romance and recklessness fuse visually in a rendition that both warms and chills the spectator.
From the very opening, poverty is rife in the Latin Quarter of 1896 Paris and the audience’s initial view of Bohemia is bleak, colourless and miserable. A deflation of the audience’s expectations. This sense of hardship from the opening scene resonates throughout the production, giving a real sense of how the characters’ constant struggle overtakes their artistic liberty and unconventional lifestyle.
The audience certainly warm to Rodolfo and Mimi’s bouncing enthusiasm for poetry, philosophy and art. Their passions in life are at the height of Parisian culture in this enigmatic decade. Yet, the use of setting seems to dispel their fascinations. Neither the characters nor audience can escape the damp and grey aura of Rodolfo’s attic room; the architectural beams of the roof seem like ribs, perhaps reflecting their impoverished physical state. Ironically the audience sees that the pair’s only view outside of their attic space is the rooftops of Paris. The romantic sunset of the city that they stare at and dream of cannot be attained due to the reality of their social standing. This idea that the romantic bourgeois illusion lives outdoors is juxtaposed with the cruelty that lies at the heart of Rodolfo and Mimi’s domestic environment. This introduces a conflict that Jones utilises brilliantly throughout the performance.
One gorgeous set is that of the arcaded streets and Café Mosul – the Paris seen when Rodolfo and Mimi venture from the attic rooms. The Nutcracker-like setting of stylised shopping alleys with lines of globe lamps truly captures a child-like festive imagination. Mimi, a plain girl in a maid-like dress, is bought a twee pink lace bonnet. Rodolfo and his friends, who before were warming themselves over a broken stove, are suddenly found drinking champagne in Café Mosul wearing the clothes of Parisian gentlemen. This scene is truly what the audience want from a Bohemian romance: the festive setting, the dramatic scene that takes place in Café Mosul, and this sense of unrealistic spontaneity and thrill that is always so heavily attributed to the lifestyle.
What is most powerful about the reality-meets-illusion conflict is that the character of Mimi is too objective to participate in this ongoing fairy-tale that Rodolfo and his friends use as an escape. For example, the scene where Mimi initially meets Rodolfo is, I believe, very symbolic of her character. She visits him as she needs candle light; this action alone shows her desire to illuminate her attic space, thus her own reality as an impoverished seamstress living in Paris is clear. Likewise, her search for her lost key is perhaps symbolic of how she refuses to be locked outside of the cruel domestic space and in the world of illusions that Rodolfo and his friends participate in.
The practicality and realism Jones brings to Mimi’s character, through her refusal of Rodolfo’s advances, her austere servant-like costume and her demurity as a seamstress- and not an artisan dreamer, helps to evoke emotion and reasoning in her tragic and premature death.
Whilst often Mimi’s untimely death is attributed to her broken heart and poor health, I believe Jones uses her character to show how her inability to allude away from the misery that is the urban poverty in 19th century Paris ultimately leads to her death.
In an interview about his production of La Boheme, Jones stated: ‘tell me what tradition means.’ His unique telling of this tale through challenging ideas of stereotypical Bohemianism creates a performance that is both tearful and romanticised.
La Boheme was broadcast live from the Royal Opera House. Image source: Youtube.com