Well it had to happen sometime. I have been strongly supportive of much of the recent work of both Glyndebourne and tonight's director David McVicar. Tonight, I'm afraid was a bit of a failure in most departments (apart from the delightful company of my sister-in-law and the fact that it didn't rain).
David McVicar relocated the action to...well...quite honestly I'm not sure where we were except that it was a garret designed by a very confused architect, and there was a gas fire. This was, at least until Acts 3 and 4, an indifferent relocation – that is it didn't serious interfere with the drama but it did nothing to reinforce it at all, though it is never a good sign when in the opening moments the text is talking about smoke over the rooftops of Paris (or something like that) and one is wondering where in the world the performers actually are exactly. Nevertheless there is an awful lot of pointless busyness in this part of the staging (the fire jugglers added nothing), and I was sorely tempted to inaugurate a new award to be given to McVicar for superfluous use of revolve and insufficient use of gantry. After the interval things deteriorated further – in particular in terms of movement. First there was the problem of convincing one that Mimi is really dying. I realise that sopranos taking the role are unlikely (fortunately) to actually look consumptive so a director must find a way of disguising this. It was a great error on McVicar's part to place Mimi (Serena Farnocchia) centre stage in clothing which did nothing to disguise her healthy proportions. It was a further error to have Rodolfo (David Lomeli) pulling her upright periodically when she started coughing. The net result of all this was that I found it very difficult to believe that she was actually seriously ill. The second problem related to the issue of the bizarre architectural layout of the garret. For most of the action it appeared as if the four lived in one room beneath a gantry. How the gantry was supposed to relate to the room beneath it was beyond me. Moreover such limited use was made of this large, conspicuous piece of set as to make it seem fundamentally pointless. In Act 4, pointless became irritating. You may remember that Colline possesses a large overcoat which he bids farewell to in order to sell it to procure medicine for Mimi. As this moment approached it struck me that there was no sign of Colline's overcoat on stage. He departed into the wing (walking under the stage right set of stairs up the gantry) to collect it – nothing had previously been done to suggest there was any more of the flat in that direction. When he came back he walked in front of the set of stairs. I realise this may seem a small point but it was symptomatic of generally untidy and unconvincing movement and establishment of place. My wise sister-in-law did suggest that perhaps Colline had forgotten to bring the coat in with him on his original entrance, this is certainly the only explanation I can think of which would justify this confused piece of staging.
Musically things were a bit better but there were regrettably some serious weaknesses. The strongest voice on stage was Andrei Bondarenko (Marcello). He was partnered by the weakest voice, Irina Iordachescu as Musetta whose tone was shrill and thin. Her biography is a pretty thin one and I am somewhat at a loss to account on this performance for Glyndebourne having hired her.
The state of the voice is particularly worrying given her apparently limited career to date. It should be noted though that she was especially not helped by the design and movement. Musetta is supposed to be a woman who captivates most men around her – based on her costuming here I couldn't for the life of me see why any man would have wanted to rush to embrace her. Indeed Mark Bouman's costumes through the piece went from the ineffective to the counterproductive – it's all very well to costume the four leads drably but they are the leads and they need in some way to be distinguished from those around them – instead they were in danger of blending into the background too much in any scene with a crowd. The staging also made little of Musetta's fiery relationship with Marcello – most notably in Act 4 when she returns with Mimi a director must make a decision about how to play their meeting again – here it goes for nothing. The two leads already mentioned sang serviceably, but not much more than that and I had doubts in a few places about Lomeli's tuning. Of the rest the best came from Nahuel Di Pierro's Colline in Act 4.
In the pit the London Philharmonic were led by Kirill Karabits. This is my second time hearing him in action and for the life of me I still can't see why he's excited so much positive press. Perhaps he's different on the podium in Bournemouth, but while he delivered a perfectly acceptable interpretation, and the LPO played strongly for him, it wasn't the sort of performance in the pit that sweeps one off ones feet.
Broadly speaking in recent times, Glyndebourne standards both musically and in staging terms have been very strong. Stronger than a number of other national companies I could mention. This evening was not a disaster, but it was some way from being up to their usual standards. One to miss.