It's almost impossible to diminish the tear-jerking appeal of Puccini's La Boheme, a tale of struggling arty types in Paris in the second half of the 19th century.
But there are times when director Annabel Arden in her new production for WNO seems to do just that.
She shunts the action forwards to the decade before the Great War, a ploy that may give the death of the ill-fated Mimi a symbolic dimension. When our heroine dies on stage at the end, her distraught friends leave her body unattended. Are they walking away from the emblem of a madcap era that’s come to a close?
A flock of pigeons taking off outside the café in act two is presumably a portent, as it results in a momentary tableau vivant involving everyone on stage. But when did flapping pigeons in Paris ever bother anyone, particularly a seasoned boulevardier? Then there are the RSJ fortifications (but no sign of external threat) at the Customs checkpoint in act three. Or are those girders symbolically propping up the aforementioned era and its accelerated slide into history?
Why bother to create an 'Edwardian' atmosphere if you're not going to take full advantage of it? The answer's simple. There's little to be gained.
The real problem lies elsewhere, in Arden's way of visually overlaying everything and trying to make simple verismo even more realistic. Her concept is cinematic, with the action enhanced by video images designed and programmed by Nina Dunn and Sam Hunt. Sometimes this works beautifully on Stephen Brimson Lewis's sets, at other times it's a gimmicky distraction.
However, the first and third acts, lonely corpse notwithstanding, are tightly drawn, and the production is accurately cast and sung well by Anita Hartig (Mimi), a sometimes over-reaching Alex Vicens (Rodolfo), David Kempster (Marcello), David Soar (Colline), Gary Griffiths (Schaunard), and Kate Valentine (Musetta).
There's a wonderful cameo by Newport's Michael Clifton-Thompson as the pedlar Parpignol, in this production got up in a chimp's outfit like something out of Toulouse-Lautrec. Martin Lloyd (Alcindoro), Howard Kirk (Benoit), and Laurence Cole and Stephen Wells (Customs attendants) complete a pretty much faultless cast of characters.
The street chorus includes Newport children from Rougemont Junior School, St Julians Comprehensive School and Caerleon Comprehensive, all relishing their moments of musical glory on the WMC stage.
Conductor Carlo Rizzi, an instinctive Puccinian and WNO's former music director, returns to the company to give of his best and offer the show a saving grace, if anyone thinks it needs one.