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La bohème and The Golden Cockerel

Giacomo Puccini and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov
English Touring Opera
York Theatre Royal

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Luciano Botelho (Rodolfo) and Francesca Chiejina (Mimi) Credit: Richard Hubert Smith
Alys Mererid Roberts (Golden Cockerel), Robert Lewis (Astrologer) and Grant Doyle (King Dodon) Credit: Richard Hubert Smith

Last year, English Touring Opera delivered an enchanting production of Handel’s Amadigi. In many ways, it epitomised what we have come to expect from this venerable company: simple but inventive direction, imaginative set design, powerful singing and, of course, an impressive orchestra.

However, despite my enjoyment of Amadigi, there was something tentative about ETO’s return to the stage amidst the ongoing chaos of COVID—this was largely due to the claustrophobic nature of the opera and its small cast of characters. With this potent double-bill, however, one has the sense of a company that has fully regained its confidence.

Puccini’s La bohème is one of the most beloved operas in the canon, and this revival of James Conway’s much-praised 2015 production—with added material by director Christopher Little-Moon—clarifies why this is the case.

At the heart of La bohème is the love story between penniless poet Rodolfo and fragile seamstress Mimi, both of whom live in the same apartment building. Francesca Chiejina sings beautifully as Mimi, conveying the character’s inner feelings without resorting to sentimentality. After some early vocal issues, she is matched by Luciano Botelho’s expressive tenor, and the two performers have a lovely chemistry during their tentative first meeting where Mimi knocks on Rodolfo’s garret door to request a candle.

One of the other great joys of this production is the camaraderie between Botelho’s Rodolfo and his other Bohemian housemates—the painter Marcello (Michel de Souza), the philosopher Colline (Trevor Eliot Bowes) and the musician Schaunard (Themba Mvula)—all of whom provide lively support, adding further vitality to this production. Also impressive is Jenny Stafford, who captures the indomitable confidence of Musetta, the musical siren.

For the most part, the staging is effective in its simplicity. The period costumes are pleasing to the eye, and a slanted glass panel is effectively used to render a range of locations. That being said, some elements of the production were slightly less successful. While I could appreciate its metaphorical significance, the inclusion of an air-balloon basket on the stage felt rather random. Also, although I enjoyed the humour of the Café Momus sequence, the sheer number of performers on the stage rendered it slightly static.

Overall, however, I was moved by this understated production of La bohème, which contrasts beautifully with Rimsky-Korsakov’s weird and wonderful opera from 1909, The Golden Cockerel.

In the programme notes, director James Conway suggested that this production is “likely to be the first performance of The Golden Cockerel at most theatres on tour”. This made me feel better about knowing nothing about the opera beforehand. Now that I have seen ETO’s production, I’m utterly delighted that Conway chose to restage it.

Inspired by one of Alexander Pushkin’s poems, The Golden Cockerel tells the strange tale of a monarch, King Dodon (Grant Doyle), who worries that his country will be invaded by a neighbouring state. Enter the mysterious Astrologer (Robert Lewis), who offers Dodon a magical Cockerel of Gold who will cry out when danger is near, but only if he is willing to grant him a request at a later date. I won’t spoil the rest of the opera, except to say that I was thrilled by its wild and unpredictable plot.

Rimsky-Korsakov used The Golden Cockerel as a means of critiquing Russian imperialism, and Conway’s production preserves this satirical thrust. While the opera is musically less interesting than La bohème, the production design is far more imaginative. Neil Irish’s costumes have the heightened reality of fairy-tale illustrations, conveying so much about the characters—with their sailor suits and rosy cheeks, the two princes (Thomas Elwin and Jerome Knox) put me in mind of Tweedledee and Tweedledum, while the sinister Astrologer is clearly modelled on Rasputin.

The performances are strong across the board. Grant Doyle does a terrific job of capturing Dodon’s self-important stupidity, and Paula Sides is suitably seductive and dangerous as the Queen of Shemakha. With her fabulous yellow costume and jerky, bird-like movements, Alys Mererid Roberts brings an otherworldly—and often sinister edge—to the Cockerel. The Chorus impress in a range of smaller roles.

Under the leadership of Iwan Davies and Garry Cornelius, the ETO Orchestra rose to the challenges of these two demanding operas. Both productions were impressive, and I would struggle to pick one over the other.

Reviewer: James Ballands