The English Touring Opera’s performance of Giacomo Puccini’s classic La Bohème visited Warwick Arts Centre in April. This tale of romance, mortality and poverty in 19th-century Paris was kept to it’s roots by ETO, who performed in Italian; yet this opera still captures the hearts of modern audiences time after time. Our staff reviewer Richard Gratwick reflects on each of the four acts, uncovering whether or not ETO’s performance hit all the right notes.
Only the stoniest soul can remain unmoved by La Bohème, a classic tale of love and death, all starting with a blown-out candle. English Touring Opera’s new production, directed by James Conway, had me sniffling into my sleeve.
The production is an intimate one. The theatre is not cavernous, the orchestra not symphonic, the voices not Wagnerian. But this is a tale of penurious Parisian artists. A certain austerity seems right. Conductor Michael Rosewell and the ETO orchestra gave a refreshingly lean reading of Puccini’s ravishing score, free of soggy sentimentality.
We feel drawn right into the garret of Act 1, where Marcello (Grant Doyle) and Rodolfo (David Butt Philip) complain of the cold, until Schaunard (Njabulo Madlala) arrives with a windfall, and they decide to dine out, joined by Colline (Matthew Stiff). If Butt Philip’s Rodolfo was occasionally obscured in the busy four-man ensembles, he soon came to the fore when the others left and Mimì (Ilona Domnich) meekly appeared, complete with smoking candle.
The bright, brassy voices of these two leads were well-matched. The two “introduction” arias, Che gelida manina and Mi chiamano Mimì, were delivered sensitively, more as simple heartfelt Italian tunes, rather than heavy operatic show-stoppers.
Pupils from Hearsall Community Primary School joined Act 2 as a suitably mischievous rabble of children. Sky Ingram gave a splendidly vampish Musetta, complete with drawstring on her skirt to better flash a leg or two. She dispatched the provocative waltz with seductive ease, delightfully taunting Marcello with one of Pa’Guignol’s puppets.
The highlight was Act 3, set a couple of months later, when the relationship between Rodolfo and Mimi is deteriorating. The acting here was uncommonly fine. Doyle, exquisitely controlling his powerful voice, showed Marcello to be a sensitive and caring friend. Butt Philip made Rodolfo’s responses brash and unlikeable as he labelled Mimì a flirt, but his voice melted into despairing tenderness as he confessed his real worry: that Mimì is very ill and he cannot give her the care she needs.
We return to the garret in Act 4, the two men musing on their now-ended relationships. As the flash bulb explodes on a pastiche of a self-portrait of the French photographer Nadar, an abrupt chord signals the end of bohemian high-jinks. Mimì is back, gravely ill: her last wish is to be with Rodolfo. Domnich pulled off with convincing fragility the dauntingly contradictory task of singing the role of a dying consumptive. That Schaunard started coughing too was a horribly chilling reminder that Mimì’s condition is infectious.
Imaginative staging and delicate lighting gave the evening a twist of hazy surrealism. Was there a draught in the theatre? Surely not. But I felt a definite chill at the passing of the poor seamstress, and Rodolfo’s heartbroken cries of “Mimì!” which ended the opera rang in my ears all the way home.