For those unfamiliar with Puccini’s La Bohème, it tells the heartbreaking love story of poet Rodolpho and his neighbour Mimi. Over 120 years after it was first performed in Turin, the award-winning Oxford Opera Company have brought one of the most popular pieces to the Playhouse, adding a contemporary feel to a bohemian story.
As fast as the whirlwind romance between Rodolpho and Mimi begins, it fizzles out before escalating again. There’s a lot packed into this two-hour opera, and the cast do well in presenting it to the audience, with some funny moments with the “boys” Colline, Shaunard and Marcello. Furthermore, utilising the talents of local children and students as the street kids brought a lovely Oxford feel to the performance.
For me, the stand out performances of the night were with Marlena Devoe as Mimi and Huw Montague Rendall as Marcello. Where the chamber orchestra dominated and muted some cast members, Marlena and Huw commanded the stage. As Mimi, New Zealand-born Samoan Marlena was completely captivating; she effortlessly glided and serenaded us from the moment she charmed her love; played by Huw, who gave a suave and powerful performance from the outset. In the scene where they played opposite each other, they were mesmerising.
Although I’m not exactly an opera expert, I have seen a fair few, and I don’t think I’d rush to see La Bohème again. This is by no means a criticism of Oxford Opera, but of the opera itself. Of all the beautiful and exceptionally powerful classical music out there, there seemed to be something lacking in La Bohème and its score. Turns out I’m not alone: the composer Benjamin Britten once wrote “In spite of its neatness, I became sickened by the cheapness and emptiness of the music." Maybe I wouldn’t go that far, but I would definitely question why this is one of the most popular operas worldwide.