Is there anything new to say about La bohème, one of the most often performed operas worldwide today? This was the first of two productions I’m seeing just in this one week, and no doubt barely a week goes by without a staging somewhere. Well, if you’re going to do something new with such a stalwart of the repertoire, there are two common tactics that were evident in this Glyndebourne production by director Floris Visser, first aired at this year’s festival, and now showing in the tour (with Simon Iorio directing its revival). Firstly, strip it of colour and go monochrome, and secondly, change the time, here from the 19th century to the 1930s or 40s. 

Bekhzod Davronov (Rodolfo) and Gabriella Reyes (Mimì)
© Glyndebourne Productions Ltd | Photo: Bill Cooper

What else has Visser done? Well, gone is the attic room where Rodolfo and his mates live, as is the interior of the Café Momus of Act 2. Instead, the whole opera has one set (designed by Dieuweke Van Reij), a grey cobbled street rising to a brow in the distance and falling away into darkness, with high sided, grey walls (which later reveal doors to the off-stage café). This fits well with the Barrière d’Enfer setting of Act 3, and becomes an outdoor café scene, as well as the ‘home’ of the four young artists. There is mileage in the implication that they are perhaps living on the streets here, but perhaps that is too literal, as it doesn’t really make sense of the comedic scene with their ‘landlord’ Benoît, or for that matter, Mimì arriving with her candle and then losing her keys. But beyond this, the setting works remarkably well, and with some deft choreography for the chorus, the bustling Act 2 is mostly successful. 

La bohème
© Glyndebourne Productions Ltd | Photo: Bill Cooper

But the key to Visser’s production is the insertion of Death (Peter Van Hulle) as a physical presence, lurking in the background, making Puccini’s candle metaphor a more explicit portent of the doom we all know Mimì inevitably faces. This is a useful conceit, drawing the audience into her fear and ultimate acknowledgement of her fate, as it is clear only we and Mimì see Death’s presence. There are a couple of splashes of colour, one of which is Parpignol arriving with a bunch of red balloons (an homage to Lamorisse?) in place of toys for the children, with Parpignol doubled by Death adding a further macabre implication to his wares.

Does this all work? It is remarkably successful. Apart from a few minor anomalies (the landlord scene and the arrival of the marching band in Act 2 stretching the staging to full capacity), there is an intensity to the setting, paring the action down allowing for full focus on the emotional interactions. The cast here is also very strong, and the rapport between the four men is particularly convincing, both in their comedic scenes, and in their clear deep compassion for one another shown in Act 4. The bond between Bekhzod Davronov’s Rodolfo and Luthando Qave’s Marcello is especially movingly portrayed. 

William Thomas, Luvuyo Mbundu, Darren Jeffery, Luthando Qave and Bekhzod Davronov
© Glyndebourne Productions Ltd | Photo: Bill Cooper

The relationship between Rodolfo and Mimì (Gabriella Reyes) is hard to pull off – they fall in love in a moment, then between acts Rodolfo gets jealous (bored?) and Mimì is feeling suffocated, so will they/won’t they split up? They agree to part when the flowers arrive in spring… for which (spoiler alert) Visser’s Death has a reveal. Yet here Davronov captured well Rodolfo’s impetuous youthfulness, contrasted with Reyes’ emotional intensity, with that added dimension of her visions of Death. Mariam Battistelli as Musetta also managed well the shift from comedy to tragedy, from a wickedly playful and delightfully bright “Quando me'n vo'” in Act 2, to a strong emotional showing in the final act. 

Darren Jeffery (Alcindoro) and Mariam Battistelli (Musetta)
© Glyndebourne Productions Ltd | Photo: Bill Cooper

Davronov sang Rodolfo with strong clear lines and passion, yet he never dominated proceedings, for it was Reyes that shone with rich lyricism and depth of emotion. Qave as Marcello also deserves mention, having crossed over from playing Schaunard in the summer, bringing a powerful, rich-toned presence to the role. Rory Macdonald conducted the Glyndebourne Tour Orchestra with energy, maintaining the forward momentum as well as eliciting the rich lyricism of Puccini’s luscious scoring.

If this is your first Bohème, a little synopsis research might be necessary to fill in a few gaps, but it still delivers the power of the emotional journey here. For old hands, it succeeds in bringing a new perspective, and the strength of the whole cast mean that this is a production that definitely stands out from the crowd.