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<<  -- 3 --  Wilfrid Mellers    SECOND SIGHT


Mimi -- in Puccini's version of her, if not perhaps in Murger's -- is the only character who, but for God's intervention, had a sense of what spiritual heights and depths might mean, even if she couldn't scale them. Mary Planas, singing and acting her, has the tiny stature that may accord with physical frailty and docile submission to the will of God, whilst also having the richly lyrical voice and the animated ability necessary to cope with the role; even so, it's significant that what we mostly vividly remember from her performance is the exquisitely tender pianissimos her voice achieves, in all registers. Harrie van der Plas, as her poet-lover, doesn't produce the scalp-tingling buzz we expect of the vintage Puccinian tenor, though he perhaps more appropriately convinces us that Romantic Love may be an absolute, and might even, in a feckless world, stand as a substitute for value. Christine Buffle, as Musetta, the cafe-singer and highish-class tart whose zest complements Mimi's vulnerability, says what there is to be said for la vie de Bohème as a human positive and, with William Dazely as her clear-voiced, open-hearted painter-lover, makes a pretty pair who remain sanguine in the face of odds. At least they survive until their jaunty jollity is transformed into stunned bemusement by Mimi's death. The death scene is, as always, effective and affecting, though we're deprived of Rodolfo's marrow-freezing caterwauling over the body of his defunct beloved. Some may think that this is a welcome evasion of melodrama and sentimentality ('emotion in excess of the object'); but I suspect that Puccini thought that the arbitrary malignancy of God called for an extreme response. We are told that he himself bellowed uncontrollably over his heroine's fate.

The many minor parts are effectively etched in, and the riotous roster of children that bolsters the theme of juvenile fecklessness seem to relish their carpering, choreographed by Quinny Sacks and colourfully dressed by Anthony Ward. Throughout, Rick Fisher's lighting catches the right nervous equilibrium between reality and dream; and, most important of all, Stephen Sloane steers the orchestra and chorus enchantingly through Puccini's compromise between the real and the surreal, always sensitive to the distinction between what I've called routine and the uncommonly common big moments. I still think the rotating stage gets a shade tiresome, but I appreciate its point in underlining the motif of life's televisual illusoriness, as against irremediable death and the baying of the hounds of hell.

Copyright © 6 October 2001 Wilfrid Mellers, York, UK




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