Young bohemians and the warring gods

Opera North's La Boheme
Opera North's La Boheme
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Opera North have two young casts for Puccini’s La Boheme. David Denton speaks to Anita Watson and Gabriela Istoc.

The Turin audience were still reeling after having experienced the first Italian performance of Richard Wagner’s epic drama, Gotterdammerung, when a few mights later they gave a very lukewarm reception to the premiere of Puccini’s La Boheme, the rather aging cast hardly designed to recapture the life of a young group of Paris bohemians.

By bringing together young emerging international opera stars to form two complete casts, Opera North is not about to repeat that mistake for their revival of Phyllida Lloyd’s 1993 production.

“I guess the age of the singers in my line-up are not that far removed from Puccini’s bohemians,” says the Australian soprano, Anita Watson. “The usual sight of four old men dancing around in the fourth act trying to look like students always looks so silly.”

One of two Mimis, who will alternate in the leading role over the next week, she recalls beginning her life in when she joined a choir at the age of eight.

“My mother always said I would make a soprano having cried very loud and long as a baby and at a very high pitch, and it was mother who told me I should give it a go at professional level when I had to make the choice between that and studying economics at University.

“So I went to the Australian Opera Studio before moving to study in Europe at the Cologne Opera Studio, and it was there I first learnt the role of Mimi as an understudy, before doing exactly the self same thing at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, as part of their Young Artist Programme. Then there was another period there understudying the role, and now I get to sing it on stage with mum coming over for my opening night.”

Sharing the role is the Romanian soprano, Gabriela Istoc, who has already captured the hearts of the audience when singing part of the opera’s third act in Opera North’s From Paris with Love, staged earlier in the year.

“My parents were not at all musical, and I was 13 when I went with five other girls to a school for singing, but I didn’t know it was going to be for classical music singing,” relates Istoc. “It took some time before I started to enjoy it, but eventually I was to study at the University of Music in Bucharest.

“I don’t seem to have a home any longer, but I think I am one of the luckiest people on this earth to be singing in opera,” she says, while detailing her nomadic life that has taken her to study at the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin and the National Opera Studio in London. There followed appearances in the UK, France and Denmark. “But with air flights to take you around the world, I hope one day I will return to Romania – I have yet to appear there in a complete opera.”

The story of the seamstress who becomes part of the quartet of young men, and falls deeply in love with Rodolfo, is almost destined to end in tragedy with her death. For Watson, however, it has a happy twist when she was reunited with the South Korean tenor, Ji-Min Park, who understudied as Rodolfo during their time together at Covent Garden.

That cast also includes the Sheffield born, John Savournin, Duncan Rock, and Barnaby Rea, with Ski Ingram as the effervescent Mussetta.Members of the alternating team include France’s foremost young operatic tenor, Sebastien Gueze, joined by Phillip Rhodes, Gavan Ring, Jimmy Holliday.and Lorna James.

Opera North then repeat the Turin experience, but this time the opposite way around, with Gotterdammerung following La Boheme, and it will complete the complete cycle Das Ring des Nibelungen, that has been presented over the past three years in semi-staged versions at Leeds Town Hall, the venue chosen so as to have the benefit of the large orchestra required by Wagner.

The story thus far has seen the god Wotan create his dream home in Valhalla, and pays for it with the gold that has been stolen from the Rhinemaidens. That does not please his crooked adversaries in the underworld, the Nibelungs, and war is declared, Wotan foolishly seeking the advice of the God of Fire, Loge, a person who, at best, is of dubious loyalty as he can always consume anything he dislikes in his flames.

Two generations later and the war continues to simmer, for while Wotan’s earthly grandchild is now in possession of the magic ring made from the Rhine gold, he is a naive character, and the Nibelung children know if they can seize it from him, and that could spell the end of the Gods.

That summarises ten and a half hours of music, and now comes the epic four and three quarter hours that will decide who wins the war, and there can only be one victor.

Heading the cast, and fresh from her success as Opera North’s Minnie in Puccini’s La fanciulla del West, Alwyn Mellor heads the cast as Brunnhilde, Wotan’s earth daughter who is caught up in the conflict and is now wearing that gold ring given to her by Siegfried. That long and exacting role marks the company debut of the American heldontenor, Daniel Brenna.

United in their desire to gain the ring, Mats Almgren and Eric Green sing Hagen and Gunther, with the massive baritone voice of Jo Pohlheim masterminding their plot to bring the downfall of the Gods. Peter Mumford continues in his role of director and lighting designer, with Richard Farnes conducting.

• Puccini’s La Boheme, Leeds Grand Theatre, May 2-10.

• Wagner’s Gotterdammerung, Leeds Town Hall, Jun 14 & 18, Jul 12 Box office 0844 8482700.