Tuesday 27 September 2016

Classical: Great tunes abound on a truly magical night at the opera

George Hamilton

Published 15/11/2015 | 02:30

Magical: Modern La Bohème at the English National Opera
Magical: Modern La Bohème at the English National Opera

Great tunes. Isn't that what music is all about? Tunes to lift your heart, tunes to stir the spirit, tunes to drive you to the depths of despair. They come in all shapes and sizes, too, filling concert halls with their drama, recital rooms with their delicacy, and theatres with the complete gamut of emotions that a good opera will arouse.

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Last weekend, courtesy of our good friends Jenny and Steven, we had the opportunity to reacquaint ourselves with one such. Where an invitation of mine would most likely involve a seat in a grandstand, theirs included tickets to La Bohème.

The fact that this version of Puccini's masterpiece was running in London added glitz to the glamour.

The English National Opera is based in the magnificence and splendour of the Coliseum on St Martin's Lane, just up from Trafalgar Square, truly a "palace of entertainment", which was the intention of its designer, Frank Matcham, the man who also gave Belfast its Grand Opera House.

With 2,359 seats spread over three tiers, it's the biggest theatre in London. The opulent decoration, the marble, the chandeliers, the ionic columns, and the Roman motifs in keeping with its name, help make an evening there a special delight. Puccini's music iced the cake.

La Bohème is essentially a sad tale. In the original, Rodolfo and Marcello, a poet and a painter, share a Parisian garret. Next door, there's Mimì, a slip of a girl who is a dressmaker. Also involved is Musetta, a femme fatale who once had a fling with Marcello but now has a sugar daddy in the shape of a government minister. One of the comic highlights is when there's a chance meeting in a café, and the old boy gets stuck with the bill for them all.

So far, so operatic. And subsequently melodramatic. Through a variety of twists and turns, accompanied by suitably sumptuous music, the plot lines merge, they all get back together, but Mimì - whose failing health has been hinted at throughout - passes away. Ah well, it would hardly be an opera without somebody dying.

Great tunes abound. From the very start, when Mimì arrives looking for a light for her candle and Rodolfo remarks on how cold she is - 'Che gelida manina' ('Your Tiny Hand is Frozen').

Introducing herself, she sings 'Mi Chiamano Mimì' ('They Call Me Mimì'). There's the love duet - 'O Soave Fanciulla' ('O Sweet Girl'). In Musetta's waltz, the vamp sings about how, when she's off for a stroll - 'Quando |M'en Vo Soletta' ('When I'm Out on My Own') - she knows all the men are looking at her, fancying her.

There's a great quartet involving them all - 'Che facevi? Che Dicevi' ('What were you Doing? What were you Saying?) - two couples having a tiff, one row bouncing off the other.

And then at the end, 'Sono Andati?' ('Have They Gone?'). Mimì and Rodolfo are alone, and can tidy up the love story before her candle finally goes out.

The English National Opera brought the story into a more modern era, the setting not so much a Parisian attic as an American loft. While the originals were into their wine, here other substances feature strongly, which creates confusion around a central thread, Mimì's poor health.

The initial Mimì was the victim of squalid circumstance. The demise of this Mimì seemed self-inflicted. That said, and notwithstanding the jarring effect, for me, of lyrics delivered in English, this night at the opera had more plusses than minuses, the biggest of all, of course, being Puccini's magical music.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 10.00 each Saturday morning.

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