La Bohème

Composed by Giacomo Puccini, libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, based on the novel Scènes de la Vie de Bohème by Henri Murger
Opera Holloway
Sutton House, Hackney
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Chamber opera is currently enjoying great popularity for obvious reasons. It is generally possible to hear superb singers at intimate venues with ticket prices that are genuinely affordable.

In addition, directors and adaptors of such productions are frequently more adventurous than those trying to please conservative opera buffs at the world’s iconic venues.

In the case of Opera Holloway, while the original Italian libretto is sung throughout the two-hour duration, the staging and surtitles take us to contemporary Worthing on the Sussex coast.

The students may be dressed differently from those in traditional versions, but their problems remained the same: short of money and inspiration, while frequently thwarted in love.

Although the design budget is clearly limited, this is hardly a problem when portraying the kind of student digs that are the lot of penniless poets and artists such as Alex Haigh playing Rodolfo and Sam Oram, Marcello (the latter at least able to work on an old laptop).

As Christmas approaches and they bemoan their fate along with a couple of tuneful pals, a twist of fate brings Callie Gaston’s seamstress Mimi, cold and coughing, to a vision of mutual love at first sight when she meets Rodolfo.

Already, the singing is sumptuous, particularly from the loved-up duo. A trip to the local pub following a windfall brings the whole company on board. In particular, Marcello gives voice to his disappointment as flighty Musetta, wittily played by Lorena Paz Nieto, whips up his jealousy in the company of the very young-looking Alcindoro, sung by Konrad Jaromin.

The interval curtain comes down on the whole cast almost raising the high ceiling in the rather lovely auditorium at the National Trust’s Sutton House, much to the delight of an enthusiastic audience.

It isn’t giving too much away, since everybody will know the plot anyway, to observe that tragedy follows, allowing the two leading performers to sing their hearts out, while their compatriots do likewise in the moment of greatest pain.

From Hackney, the company travels around the south of England to 12 other venues, some indoors and some alfresco.

The staging by director Fiona Williams is novel and coherent, bringing an old story up-to-date with believable characterisations. The production is enhanced by the combined work of musical director Lewis Gaston and Laurie O’Brien on the piano.

The singing from the members of this young company proves to be the main attraction. It is genuinely sumptuous from top to bottom, and although the acting is not always of the same standard nobody lets the team down.

While many readers would love to enjoy the delights of Covent Garden and Glyndebourne on a regular basis, the work of companies like Opera Holloway is valuable. It allows young performers to strut their stuff and potentially advance their careers while at the same time introducing this art form to those with limited budgets and providing high quality entertainment to aficionados at affordable rates.

The full schedule can be found on the Opera Holloway web site.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher