(Credit: Richard Hubert Smith)
Last week the English Touring Opera launched its spring tour. The tour includes “St. John Passion,” Rismky-Korsakov’s “The Golden Cockerel” at the opera’s London home of the Hackney Empire, and a revival of Puccini’s “La bohème.” James Conway’s production will be touring a myriad of venues until early June with Rodolfo, Marcello, Musetta, and Mimi double-cast.
Here it is revived with verve by Christopher Moon-Little, whose insightful program essay on the two central women of the opera suggests attention to psychological detail and historical context reflected in this finely-honed revival of an operatic staple.
Designs tending towards the grimy and grungy are by Florence de Maré and Neil Irish, lit with understated chill by Rory Beaton. Lively supertitles helped give the show a knockabout, contemporary feel, despite the heritage staging. Even if ETO doesn’t offer the lavish spectacle of bigger companies in Act two, funneling children, actors, chorus, and singers into the front portion of the stage creates a vibrant and bustling stage picture, with plenty of imaginative detailing.
Indeed, it is a reminder of the focus that prevails across the production. The horseplay in Acts one and four from the boys includes a wittily choreographed sequence; Benoit is exquisitely blocked and executed with elan by the central quartet. A dark, clouded mirror shears the stage and frames the space of the garret and cafe – evocative of the murky glass that appears in contemporary paintings by Renoir and Manet. For a start, this offers occasion, some missed, some belated, for self-reflection and psychological examination.
There are smart interventions, though never perverse ones. Parpignol becomes a puppeteer, which has Pa’Guignol Punch & Judy show for the children – presumably a reference to the contemporary equivalent of verismo’s theatrical spit ‘n’ sawdust in France (the grotty Grand Guignol theater in Pigalle). The puppets mirror Marcello and Musetta’s onstage bust-up, until the latter steps in to shape the story for herself, in a coup de théâtre that reminds us that she is a creature of the stage first and foremost.
Gestures are drawn with the same extravagance as Puccini’s open-hearted score, which Moon-Little leans into; Alcindoro is deliciously affrighted when Musetta shows a bit of leg in the Act two finale. Another nice touch gives Schaunard the sickness in the very final scene, giving the audience the horrible knowledge that this scene – a friend dying in the attic surrounded by people who can do nothing about it – is doomed to play out again. The only loose thread is the hot air balloon basket that adorns the garret, which never gets off the ground either thematically or literally, feeling awkwardly cryptic in an otherwise sharply-communicated vision.
Francesca Chiejina’s Mimì was the vocal highlight of the evening and a superlative performance in its own right. She was unerringly precise in intonation and showcased a remarkable range of colors across the voice – not least lower down, with some especially honeyed moments. Soft moments were especially impressive – there is little more exciting than really quiet singing – and could be both glassy and crystalline or tender and silken, depending on the moment. Her very final scene demonstrated an extraordinary level of sustained dynamic control, the volume ebbing and melting away ever so gradually over her final passages. She will surely go from strength-to-strength in this role.
Her counterpart in Luciano Botelho made for a well-matched Rodolfo as an actor but less so in voice. He had real warmth and boasted a range of timbres in his middle register, but above the stave sounded reedy and fraught, with intonation fluctuating accordingly, and especially noticeable in his duets with Chiejina. His very top notes lacked a wholesome quality, though he is nonetheless a convincing dramatic presence and sang well with the boys. These issues may subside as he settles into the run. Michel de Souza’s Marcello was outstanding – brash and lithe in Puccini’s vertiginous tessitura, and a fine comic foil – grumpy, impetuous, world-weary – to the more tender Rodolfo. His top E at the lyrical climax of Act two was ardent and urgent.
April Koyejo-Audiger as Musetta had less of a vocal presence than Chiejina’s Mimì, being much lighter and frothier in sound. Though she put in a characterful performance that was at its best in the Act three quartet, where she and Marcello both fizzed dramatically and vocally. One can see that she will relax into the role and indulge the audience a little more as the run goes on. Indeed, the quartet was one of the high points of the show, blocked with thoughtful contrasts between the couples and marked by excellent ensemble singing.
Trevor Bowes’ Colline offered a luxurious “Vecchia zimarra,” fulsome and tender in a way that had “soulful philosopher” written all over. Themba Mvula offered a counterweight in a vivacious Schaunard. Benoît and Alcindoro are too frequently sung as if caricatures – indeed, hardly “sung” at all, but this was not the case with Matthew McKinney nor Philip Wilcox who brought vocal polish to these bit parts. A fresh-faced chorus gave Act two a real burst of energy, but faced stiff competition from the children’s chorus. The Hackney Children’s Choir sang with abandon. (The children will be sung by choristers local to the various touring venues, as is the practice with ETO’s community-minded ethos.)
As befits a nimble company, ETO adopted a reduced orchestration from Bryan Higgins (for a relatively slight opera Puccini’s original scoring is surprisingly hefty). These can risk a loss of luxury, but if anything the sparer forces found a more concentrated wiry intensity in the music, spurred on by remarkably crisp conducting from Dionysus Grammenos, who excelled in focusing the rhythmic energies of the score. Seldom in London has that treacherous opening downbeat, with its wafer-thin semiquaver rest, burst forth with such control and promise. Grammenos has thrown a gauntlet down to the other major pit orchestras in London who frequently revive this bread-and-butter work.