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La Bohème’s first ever performance before a Lagos audience at the MUSON Centre is a creative bold step that deserves plaudits for harnessing the best local talents, says Okechukwu Uwaezuoke

Local classical music aficionados would affirm that history was made with the last Sunday’s performance of La Bohème. After all, this would be the first time this opera in four acts – composed by Giacomo Puccini to an Italian libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa – would be performed on West African stage.

Yet, right from its world premiere on February 1, 1896 at the Teatro Regio in the Italian town of Turin, La Bohème has become a staple in major opera houses worldwide. This is in addition to being part of the standard Italian repertory.

Bringing it to the MUSON Centre’s Agip Recital Hall stage was creative bold step, which also engraves the names of the director, Atule Achimugu, in letters of gold. Indeed, the artistic director of the Comic Opera House deserves plaudits for cobbling together an impressive cast list composed mainly of the best available local talents.

Yet, for a piece that easily lends itself to adaptability when it comes to contemporary tastes, she expectedly stumbles into the own pitfalls of her strict, if not dogmatic, adherence to the original script. Of course, it is an already known fact that dredging up scenes of the 19th Century Parisian Latin Quarter could be quite as challenging as they come.

Perhaps, it is in the featuring of a mainly black cast that the actual history was made. But for a production that seems fixated on coming as close to reality as possible, it falters pitifully in the costuming and props department.

There is, for instance, really very little about the stage backdrop in Act One that tells the audience that the set depicts the four bohemians’ draughty Latin Quarter attic dwelling. True, there is an attempt to represent a fireplace – an essential part of the plot – and a tiny window high up a wall. But that is where the illusion of reality ends.

It is in this setting that the audience finds the painter Marcello (Michael Amadi), stage right, at work on an easel and the writer Rodolfo (Joseph Oparamanuike) standing, stage left, gazing out of an imaginary window with arms wrapped around his chest. Rendering Puccini’s ethereal arias to the deft accompaniment by Tosin Ajayi and Babatunde Sosan, the pair complain of the cold. A Christmas Eve in Paris is, after all, supposed to be cold. Hence, the burning of Rodolfo’s drama manuscript to keep the fireplace burning is quite understandable.

A heightened sense of camaraderie heralds the arrival of the two other room mates – the philosopher Colline (Oluwasegun Okedunmola), who is disgruntled by his failure to pawn his books, and the musician Schaunard (Chisom Maduakor), who not only brings home food, wine and cigars, but also tales about the source of his good fortune, to which his friends pay scarce attention.

This should ordinarily whet the audience’s appetite for the friend’s eventual night out at Café Momus. But the four happy-go-lucky friends seem incredibly too frugal with the wine. Too frugal that not even Schaunard’s proposal of a treat at Café Momus can excuse this.

It becomes more comical with the entrance of the rent-chasing landlord Benoît (Samuel Adeniyi), who gets thrown out after his drunken boast about his amorous exploits and his disclosure that he is married.

Fast-forward to the arrival of Mimì (Swiss-born Teuta Nicolet-Dit-Félix), the neighbour, whose candle has been snuffed out and wants Rodolfo to light it. The audience savours the full taste of Nicolet-Dit-Félix’s skills as a soprano soloist and Oparamanuike’s lustrous antecedents as an accomplished tenor. The falling-in-love scene that plays out here enthrals the audience and earns the duo deserving plaudits at the end of the act.

It gets livelier and more colourful on stage, as the opera progresses to Act Two. There is something anachronistic about the costumes of some of the extras, who appear so lightly dressed for a chilly winter night with one or two even sporting African print shirts. In this mêlée of multitude, it takes time to spot the lovers wending their way through a street bustling with a crowd that include children of both Caucasian and black race. Rodolfo buys Mimì a bonnet from a vendor. Colline buys a coat and Schaunard a horn. The street thrums with the hubbub of vendors as the children gambol about, clamouring to see the wares of the toy vendor Parpignol. Surely, people cannot be this lightly dressed on a cold Christmas Eve! Well, this faux pas, which could easily glossed over, only adds a hilarious flavour to the scenario.

Rodolfo’s introduction of Mimì to his friends at the Café Momus is rather anticlimactic. The bohemians’ decorous reception of their comrade’s new-found lover belies their default slap-happy disposition. But, happily, Marcello’s dismay at seeing his old flame, Musetta (Albanian-born Dorela Cela) arrive with her rich government minister admirer Alcindoro (Kenneth Ekhuemelo) redeems this slip. Ditto Alcindoro’s endurance of Musetta’s antics until she dispatches him to get her shoe mended.

Also well rendered is the reunion of the two lovers with Alcindoro out of the way. Hence, the cast deserves a resounding applause for the smooth conclusion of this rather cluttered act.

Acts Three is less colourful and rather minimalist. Perhaps, there is a lot to be said about having fewer actors on the stage, after all. For the audience, it is for one easier to concentrate on an anguished Mimì seeking out Marcello, who currently lives in a little tavern where he paints for the innkeeper, to tell him about her hard life with Rodolfo. Her tale, gleaned from the shoddily prepared English subtitles, prepares the audience for the tragic ending of the final act and draws the audience’s attention to two contrasting love stories: that of Musetta and Marcello and that of Mimì and Rodlofo. Thus, the audience anticipates a bitter-sweet ending to the Mimì-Rodolfo love story.

In Act Four, the build-up to this tragic ending only begins the moment Musetta’s badges into the four friends revelry with the news about Mimì’s imminent death. But much of the tragic sting in the plot ebbs away with Mimì’s dying in the proximity of her first love, after they have both swapped the fond memories of their first meeting.

That La Bohème is a guaranteed wave-maker in international classical circles is obvious from the last Sunday’s reception by the Lagos audience. If Achimugu’s effort is deemed a step in the right direction, it is because it could lead to bolder adaptions of the production, which was organised by the Musical Society of Nigeria in partnership with the Consulate General of Switzerland.