La Vie Parisienne, La Boheme (Coliseum)

New Statesman, Sept. 1977



The more life changes, the more it's the same shows. Present London seems to be twinned with past Paris; the well-worn opera plots still sound so very topical, not to say typical. They may explore different social strata, but it's basically the same old bed-rock. Offenbach writes the sonorous counterpart of the racy story; his real masterpiece would have been the Contes Drolatiques d'Hoffman. La Vie Parisienne begins with the tourist trade. Rich foreign visitors flock to be fleeced by the French, then apparently a nation of sheep-croppers. The new arrivals are scandalised and then seduced into losing (or just giving away) their virtue along with their money. In the opening scene, a canny – and dour-looking – Scot seems to present a serious challenge. But Paris can soon translate Gaelic into Gallic, with a dash of garlic, and even transpose the Eriskay love-lilt into a risque love-lilt. The secret lies in the change of accent. The use of rhythm puts music on to a physical plane and gets it off the ground. Thus the Offenbach waltz is lighter than Strauss; for oom-pa-pa beat oo-la-la. But like the can-can, all rumptittum, it is seldom properly conducted.

    So how can an English company best convey the essence of Paris? Not, surely, by an orchestra that at first sounded so thin and under-rehearsed as to suggest a Chamber of Deputies. But later the music, under the direction of Clive Timms, came liltingly and laughingly alive – usually when the delectable Gabrielle of Sandra Dugdale was on stage. She and Terry Jenkins (Raoul) had a real feeling for the pulse of the score and its amorous fluctuations. In general, all the principals were admirably effective; but some of the roles and scenes, though sumptuously costumed and produced, suffered from occasional inhibitions which perhaps owed a little to the English text as well as the British temperament. Geoffrey Dunn's refined translation is excellent in its well-bred way; but I felt that it quite often missed or softened the original sharpness of social Satire on the malaises induced by prosperity, the low side of high life.

    Puccini depicts the maladies induced by idealistic poverty, the high side of low life: and his perspectives are far broader and deeper. With the model of Verdi's Falstaff before him, he could easily outweigh Offenbach in the rhythmically based music of comic physicality, as in the scenes of Bohemian revel. But his real power consists in melodic lines, either tied to the words or else released as a flight of song, and always sustained by sensitive scoring. Thus he can recreate the realities of the everyday physical world and use them as images of emotive life for all to recognise and share; hence his enduring popularity. In La Bohême the instruments register degrees and kinds of light or heat; flickering flames, a tender touch, a hectic flush, the numbness of frost-bite, rejection, death. As in many a Britten score, solo passages of reduced forces speak of isolation or vulnerability, the frail frame and the hurt heart. The orchestra under Charles Mackerras was powerfully eloquent and convincing while Jean-Paul Auvray's lighting and production were also most thoughtfully attuned to the music and the action.

    Lorna Haywood as the singer Musette was fittingly flamboyant and expansive; David Rendall as the poet Rudolph was lyric in Voice and yielding in demeanour. Valerie Masterson as the phthisical midinette Mimi had a touch of star quality; she sparkled yet remained wistfully remote in her pathetic transit from the half-world to the next world. The whole cast and presentation, offered some memorable and moving moments. But my earlier cavils have now escalated to caveats. As so often, the opera began scrappily. The excitements and tensions of imminent curtain rise, and anticipated curtain-calls, can make even the greatest artists forget the need for acting and articulation. Restraint is called for, we can't have a Coliseum where the lions throw themselves at the people. Secondly, I found that hearing the words could be even more distract than not doing so. The English text is in my view outmoded in idiom and dubious in accentuation. It seems to have been produced by the combined talents of various hands, some of which were both tiny and frozen.