“Sometimes at night I pretend to sleep, and I feel him trying to spy on my dreams,” Mimì tells Marcello. But in Floris Visser’s fatalistic production of La bohème for Glyndebourne Festival Opera, it’s not Rodolfo she is referring to, but death itself. As personified by Christopher Lemmings, Death stalks Mimì from her very first entrance, later appearing as Parpignol with a bouquet of sinister red balloons. These balloons provide one of the few moments of colour in an otherwise monochrome set, a grey cobbled street that descends into apocalyptic darkness. It’s not exactly subtle in its symbolism, but it makes a refreshing change from the familiar sentimentality of the opera. And in combination with a committed young cast, it makes for one of the most devastating performances I’ve seen. 

Christopher Lemmings (Parpignol/Death) and ensemble
© Glyndebourne Productions Ltd | Richard Hubert Smith

The grey unit set is works best in Act 3, with policemen, prostitutes and drunkards fading in and out of the misty darkness. Special kudos to lighting designer Alex Brok, who bathes the stage in a golden warmth and, moments later, projects sinister shadows onto the wall. For all of its minimalism it’s incredibly beautiful, as if a Brassaï had come to life. It’s less effective in the garret scenes, where nobody quite knows where to position Mimì so that she can both die effectively, hug Rodolfo and see the conductor all at the same time. Some blocking missteps aside, it’s a hugely effective production that won’t offend traditionalists while providing plenty of food for thought for those who have seen the opera a thousand times. More practically, the unit set should travel well when it goes on tour this autumn and is acoustically an absolute gift to singers. 

Ivo Stanchev, Yaritza Véliz, Luthando Qave, Sehoon Moon and Daniel Scofield
© Glyndebourne Productions Ltd | Richard Hubert Smith

Visser's production would run the risk of being too austere if it was not for the energy of the enthusiastic young cast, who infuse the stage with a vitality that throws the bleakness of the production into even sharper relief. As ever, Glyndebourne’s thoughtful casting extends to the smallest parts, with a wonderfully characterised Benoît from Richard Suart, understated in his drunken comedy. Luthando Qave and Ivo Stanchev were excellent, bringing an easy rapport and physicality as Schaunard and Colline – Qave showed himself to be a particularly charismatic. Vuvu Mpofu captured both Musetta’s flightiness and concern, lighting up the stage with her vibrant stage presence even if her silvery soprano was occasionally swamped. She sparred nicely with Daniel Scofield’s Marcello, all swaggering masculinity and injured pride. Scofield’s burnished tone marks him as a name to keep an eye on – surely a future Verdian of note.

Sehoon Moon (Rodolfo) and Yaritza Véliz (Mimì)
© Glyndebourne Productions Ltd | Richard Hubert Smith

But it’s the lead couple that can break our hearts and Glyndebourne knocks it out of the park with one of the best pairings I’ve seen in this opera. Tenor Long Long missed the first two performances for visa-related reasons, but he proved fully worth the wait. It’s a glorious voice, even across all registers with an ideal combination of ardour and flexibility. He’s also a convincing actor, phrasing his big aria as if he were saying the words for the very first time. One could hear his potential to grow into bigger roles in Rodolfo’s big outbursts, where he filled the auditorium with golden sound. Sparks flew with Yaritza Véliz’s passionate Mimì, here singing her first major role since her time as a Jette Parker Young Artist. I can’t imagine a more perfect Mimì, her vulnerability conveyed through judicious use of portamenti that recalled the great Mimìs of the past. Her voice is now a full lyric, blazing with passion but retaining a youthful freshness, and her two arias were beautifully sculpted, radiant and tinged with melancholy. Usually it’s the final act that elicits a tear – here, Mimì was doomed from the start which made it all the more poignant.

La bohème
© Glyndebourne Productions Ltd | Richard Hubert Smith

Presiding over the entire evening was Jordan de Souza, drawing rich sonorities from the London Philharmonic Orchestra. His preference for swift tempi and lush, cello-forward sound threatened to overwhelm the cast and the always-excellent Glyndebourne Festival Chorus at times, but gave a propulsive account of the score, hurtling inevitably towards the tragedy of the final act.