Italian Opera Festival - La Boheme – Ruggiero Leoncavallo
English National Opera
During the year 2000 the ENO celebrated 400 years of Italian Opera, sponsored by Alitalia (a charming touch was a small plane, which glided over the auditorium). The Italian tribute included Leoncavallo’s La Boheme; Puccini’s Manon Lescaut; The Coronation of Poppea by Monteverdi; La Giaconda by Ponchielli; The Turk in Italy by Rossini; Nabucco and Requiem both by Verdi.
A tribute was also made to Fellini in The Turk in Italy programme, with quotations by Fellini inside the programme and a wonderful photograph on the cover of the master in his “trademark” hat sitting amidst his photographic equipment.
2000 was also the year extensive restoration began on ENO’s home The London Coliseum it has been their home since 1968. The theatre was designed by the great theatre architect Frank Matcham for impresario Sir Oswald Stoll. It was built in 1904 at a cost of ?300,000 and was the most extravagant theatre ever built in London. Stoll’s vision was that all classes of the public could have theatrical entertainment (it wasn’t purely opera/ballet in those days) at a reasonable price; even the cheapest seats could be booked in advance; something hitherto unheard of. With the passing of 100 years the “Colli” (as it is affectionately known) has got a bit shabby.
So ENO in embarking on a programme of restoration in time for its centenary in 2004, thus restoring the Coliseum to its former glory, in a project costing ?30m. Amongst the improvements will be better air-conditioning, improved toilet facilities, better disabled access, redecoration and reseating of the auditorium in the colour schemes and decor of 1904 as well as providing more seats on every level. The original glass roofs will be reinstated; improvements made backstage and also improved orchestral facilities.
I was privileged to see the majority of the Italian celebratory productions and on 28 November 2000 I saw Leoncavallo’s La Boheme conducted by Roy Laughlin first seen in 1897 (not to be confused with the same opera by Puccini!). Libretto by the composer after Henry Murger’s novel “Scenes de la vie de boheme”. Puccini’s version was premiered a year prior to Leoncavallo’s. Rodolho, a poet was performed by Leigh Penrose; Marcello, a painter by Paul Whelan; Colline, a philosopher by Leslie John Flanagan. A Stranger and amateur musician by Geraint Hylton; Mimi, a flower-seller by Sandra Ford; Musetta, a banker’s mistress, by Christine Rice; Gaudenzio, an inn-keeper by Ryland Davies.
The opera was performed in modern dress, the period being anything from the twenties back to the nineties. The choreographed Christmas crowds outside the Cafe Momus include a comic paedophile arrest and an extraordinarily visual street show. Stefano Lazaridi’s building-site set is ingenious with its contrasting sights and sounds of work – the tick of clocking-in, a typewriter clattering, a pen scraping on parchment, a chorus at their desks in the upper level surrounding walkway.
Sadly, Leoncavallo’s version is no match for Puccini, although the former version is closer to the Murger stories. However, it is a courageous attempt in spite of the fact that one would hardly know that Mimi and Rodolfo were such important characters and the focus of the tragedy until Act III. In Act I and II far greater emphasis is placed on Marcello and Musetta and the ideas of romantic ambition and outrageous fun. Acts III and IV make a vivid contrast and poignantly concentrate on the extreme poverty and broken love affairs that strike the very heart of the matter.
Act I. The innkeeper Gaudenzio is angry with Schaunard and his friends as they again make a habit of not paying their bills. Schaunard promises him that tonight will be different. It is soon established that no one has any money but they decide to order dinner anyway. Schaunard wins at a game of billiards played with Barbermuche, a stranger, so the bill is settled.
Act II. Musetta is evicted from her flat as her rich lover has discovered her affair with Marcello. They all have a party in the courtyard of Musetta’s apartment building. In the uproar Mimi decides to leave Rodolfo and, tempted by the promises of Viscount Paolo, a rich admire, she slips quietly away with him.
Act III. Mimi wants to return to Rodolfo, but he refuses to have her back. Musetta decides to leave Marcello.
Act IV. The friends are partaking of a meagre Christmas dinner in Rodolfo’s room. Mimi arrives, her lover Paolo having discarded her. She has ended up living on the streets, after having been discharged from a pauper’s hospital without making a recovery from tuberculosis. Musetta, once again wealthy, sends Schaunard with her jewellery to sell for medicine for Mimi but it is too late. Reconciled with Rodolfo, Mimi dies.
But overall, the friends in Leoncavallos’ version seem to have less feeling or compassion than the bohemians in the Puccini version.