Monday 16 March 2015

La bohème, English Touring Opera, 14 March 2015

Images: Richard Hubert Smith

Hackney Empire

Rodolfo – David Butt Philip
Mimì – Ilona Domnich
Marcello – Grant Doyle
Musetta – Sky Ingram
Schaunard – Njabo Madlala
Colline – Matthew Stiff
Benoît – Adam Player
Alcindoro – Andrew Glover
Pa’Guignol – Dominic J. Walsh
Soldier – Gareth Brynmor John

James Conway (director)
Florence de Maré (designs)
Mark Howland (lighting)

Children from St Mary’s and St John’s Church of England Schools, Hackney
Chorus and Orchestra of English Touring Opera
Michael Rosewell (conductor)

I am not sure that I have seen and heard so well-integrated a production of La bohème in the theatre. Yes, it is over-exposed, but one cannot accuse English Touring Opera of conservative repertoire choices in general, and much of the country in any case has far less variety than London is. (For what it is worth, it is quite a relief to see some opera in East London: in this case, at the splendid Hackney Empire.) There is no translation: Puccini in any language other than Italian starts at a grave disadvantage. One might have thought the same about a small orchestra, but no. I was astonished quite how full a sound Michael Rosewell drew from his forces, not least from the strings: doubtless partly a matter of a helpful acoustic, but only partly. Rosewell’s conception began in relatively Classical style, but that that was an interpretative decision rather than a response to necessity became ever clearer following the interval. This was not, of course, the Vienna Philharmonic under Daniele Gatti, but no one would expect it to have been; such a performance would in any case hardly have been conceived for smaller theatres. And if the presence of Wagner were less than one often hears, Wagner – and Puccini – can cope with that.  

David Butt Philip proved himself an ardent, Italianate Rodolfo, so communicative with the text that the surtitles would almost have been superfluous, even for a newcomer to the work. That point regarding delivery of the words held for pretty much the entire cast, which worked very well indeed as an ensemble, as if its members had already been performing together for weeks. Ilona Domnich was a properly engaging Mimì, feminine yet never sentimentalising, her vocal performance increasingly encompassing tragic proportions. Sky Ingram’s characterful Musetta duly stole the second-act show, Grant Doyle’s Marcello giving very much as good as he got in their sparring. Matthew Stiff and Njabulo Madlala offered fine support as the other Bohemians, the nonchalance of their student existence more powerfully conveyed than I can recall. Adam Player and Andrew Glover put in notable turns as Benoît and Alcindoro: neither weak nor merely passable links here. Choral singing and acting, both from adults and children, impresses throughout.

James Conway’s production seems well set up to withstand the ordeals of touring, but is far more than that. It liberates the imagination and yet at the same time informs it. The ludicrous extravaganzas of luxury outsize garrets have no place here. Instead, Florence de Maré’s designs and the interactions of the characters within them have us think about memories – of the work, of the nineteenth century, of our lives, of those we have known – and respond to them. As the designer put it, ‘Bohème is certainly influenced by the quality and style of photography during the late 19th century; there’s a real sense of playfulness and performance amongst those experimenting with a new artistic medium. … We wanted this opera to look and feel like a memory; some areas of the stage have the vivid surrealism of a dream whereas others are hazily devoid of detail.’ Crucially, that comes across without having read the interview (which I only did later). The Paris of Nadar (Gaspard-Félix Tournachon) comes to life but also to death, Schaunard's demise apparently impending; the perils as well as the 'progress' of art in an age of reproduction inform the trajectory of the drama. As Conway observes, ‘we have not tried … to join the dots between these four brief scenes of shared youth’. The music, to an extent, does that, but the scenic quality, not entirely unlike that of Eugene Onegin, remains an important aspect of the construction. Touches such as the puppet show of ‘Pa’Guignol’ add to the anti-Romantic menace without overwhelming. Stefan Herheim’s brilliant production (available on DVD), easily the greatest I have seen, has one entirely rethink the work; Conway’s ambition is lesser in scope, yet finds itself just as readily fulfilled.