Welsh National Opera's La Boheme is a fairly trad staging of a fairly indestructible opera. No gimmicks, just the drama. And tonight at the WMC in Cardiff I treated myself to a front row seat and to a little magic.
I cannot say how many times I have seen this particular opera. Too many times. And yet, when sung as beautifully as this, not enough. I could go again tomorrow. Gwyn Hughes Jones, Rebecca Evans & Jason Howard, three Welsh principals, were outstanding, with Gwyn Hughes Jones' simply one of the best Rodolfo's I have seen anywhere - and I've seen them in lots of places!
It's not just the wonderfully Italiante ping in his voice, or the strength it holds in the upper register (that high 'B' in the Act 1 aria held long enough and emotionally enough to give Pavarotti a run for his money) - I just don't think I can remember an opera singer who acts that well on stage. I saw him years ago at the Royal Opera House, when Roberto Alagna was debuting as Romeo in Gounod's R&J, and I recall thinking then that if Roberto Alagna hadn't been in the cast I'd have been really impressed with him. That must have been 15 years ago. And he has got better. Truly, a great singer - a worthy successor for a nation that in Dennis O'Neill has had a world class tenor.
Rebeccas Evans grew on me. At first I found her too creamy for Mimi. But she beautifully held back her voice, allowed the music to do its work without histrionics, and drew me in. Just lovely.
I saw Jason Howard in this production in 93. I remember enjoying him - but this is better. A more world-weary Marcello, a less youthful one (which is perhaps a loss) but better sung and a good foil for GHJ.
All three sing throughout Europe and North America. GHJ has apparently sung Puccini leads under Placido Domingo's baton in Los Angeles. I can understand why he would choose him.
Glorious. Not perfect - the Musetta was a bit underpowered, and as I read her biog, she clearly does a different repertoire, Rossini, Mozart, Donizetti, and I can see that this would suit her brittle tone. Puccini is not, I think, natural territory for her. And the conductor at times was not always communicating with the band; I'm not used to hearing fluffs at the WNO, and there were a couple of them - at significant points, and occasional slips between the timing of the singing and the playing in the big scenes. (Incidentally, if the cor anglais player really did fall asleep - you were spotted. It was the embarassment in your eyes after you woke up that gave you away.)
The heart of La Boheme is Act Three. Mimi & Marcello, the trio that follows, Mimi & Rodolfo, and the final quartet. It wasn't perfect. The final quartet had timing issues. But everything else - well, as I say, those three singers were amazing. Amazing. I was genuinely swept up in the sheer thrill of it. Opera being what opera should be: powerful and glorious. I'd pay good money to hear singing like that, making the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end, my lips smile with sad joy, my eyes moisten under the emotional weight of it all. Actually, I did pay good money! No I didn't - £27 for a front row seat - it was daylight giveaway.