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La Bohème

Giacomo Puccini
English Touring Opera
Sheffield Lyceum

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Francesca Chiejina and Luciano Botelho Credit: Richard Hubert Smith
Themba Mavula, Trevor Eliot Bowes, Michel de Souza and Luciano Betelho Credit: Richard Hubert Smith
Francesca Chiejina Credit: Richard Hubert Smith

Puccini’s opera in four acts about a group of impoverished artists struggling to survive in Paris in the late nineteenth century had its first performance in Turin in 1896 under the baton of Toscanini.

ETO’s current revival of an earlier production demonstrates how universal and timeless its themes are and how powerful the music is in evoking a deeply emotional response.

The original text by Giacosa and Illicia happily intersperses scenes of youthful gaiety between the intensity of the love scenes and the increasing darkness of the later action and this contrast is exploited to great effect in ENO’s lively, accomplished and deeply felt performance.

The music is a joy throughout. The singing of the major characters is flawless, as is the quality of the orchestral playing under conductor Dionysis Grammenos.

Francesca Chiejina is outstanding as Mimi. As well as a vocal range which allows her to comfortably reach the high notes and to contrast full volume with quieter moments, the emotional intensity of her performance is persuasive and draws the audience in.

Another important aspect of the production is the rapport between the leading singers. Luciano Botelho as Rodolfo has a rich tenor voice and delivers the popular and familiar "Che gelida manina" with sensitivity and conviction.

Michel de Souza, a baritone, playing Marcello the painter, has occasions when he is in a duet with Rodolfo or a quartet with Mimi and Musetta. The voices are never overstrained and complement each other perfectly.

The musical rapport extends to the group of young artists occupying the unheated garret flat. Colline the philosopher, played by Trevor Eliot Bowes, is a bass; Schaunard the musician, played by Themba Mvula, is a baritone.

The melding of the four voices is rich and effective as is the interplay of the four players in quasi-comic sequences. These include the opening sequence when a precious manuscript is sacrificed to make a brief fire and a marching and mock fighting sequence in act 4 before the arrival of the dying Mimi.

The successful performances by major characters are extended in act 2 to include a large chorus in the scene at the Café Momus. Musetta, played by Jenny Stafford, makes her first appearance here and the complexity of her relationship with Marcello is effectively signalled and provides a significant contrast to the developing relationship between Rodolfo and Mimi.

There is a word to be said about the sets. These are attributed to Florence de Mare as designer and Neil Irish as revival designer. This is a travelling production which will have its own imperatives. The frosty window for the garret scene worked well and provided unfussy exits and entrances.

A large stage item which may have been the basket of a hot-air balloon proved to be unsteady and rather a distraction. Similarly, in the act 2 Momus scene, I was impressed by the concept of the long café bar that was lowered from the wings but the act of lowering was so fascinating that it was again a distraction.

The Momus scene was very busy with a puppet theatre, the lovely children’s choir, and a full chorus. This was well choreographed and provided a bustling background to Musetta’s leg display.

The production was an absolute pleasure after so many months of opera starvation. Because the opening scene was such an effective realisation of a group struggling to keep warm and put food on the table, it was impossible not to think of the many people in this country and beyond who are suffering similar privations. But essentially, this was a joyful and moving theatrical experience with hardly a dry eye in the house by the end. So very worth catching during its long tour.

Reviewer: Velda Harris