Monday 20 April 2015

Take your hankies with you - ETO's ‘La Boheme’ is a real tear jerker

La Boheme - English Touring Opera - © Richard Hubert Smith
La Boheme - English Touring Opera - © Richard Hubert Smith
Puccini La Boheme; Ilona Domnich, David Butt Philip, dir: James Conway, cond: Michael Roswall; English Touring Opera at Hackney Empire
Reviewed by Hilary Glover on March 13 2015
Star rating: 5.0

Sensitive performances in Puccini's classic tale

The English Touring Opera's (ETO) current season includes the beautifully enacted 'La Boheme'. Performed at Hackney Empire, directed by James Conway, and conducted by Michael Rosewell, (13 March 2015) this Puccini classic kept a traditional feel with its classic costuming, yet was enhanced by its clever and quite modern multifunctional staging designed by Florence de Maré. The crowd scenes and the children added to atmosphere of 19th century Europe, and the main roles were sensitively performed – necessitating discreet use of hankies.

Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924), born in Tuscany to a musical family, was expected to continue the long tradition of becoming the maestro di cappella of the Cattedrale di San Martino in Lucca. However after studying at the conservatory in Milan he was persuaded to write his first opera 'Le Villi' in 1883. By 1893, with 'Manon Lescaut', his skill at opera was renowned worldwide. 'Manon' had its share of troubles including several false starts with different librettists. The final pair, Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, became long term collaborators - working with Puccini on his next opera project 'La Boheme'.

La Boheme - English Touring Opera - © Richard Hubert Smith
La Boheme - English Touring Opera - © Richard Hubert Smith
Based on a set of stories from Henri Murger's 1851 'La Vie de Bohème', 'La Boheme' set the tragic love story of Rodolfo and Mimi, in a bohemian setting, surrounded by their friends with their eccentricities and complicated affairs – balancing their true feelings against the need to find lovers who could keep them fed and clothed. While love eventually wins out, it does so at high cost (at a time before antibiotics had been discovered).

Premiered in 1886 'La Boheme' was an immediate success and has remained an opera company favourite and has been performed regularly ever since.

Tonight's performance had Ilona Domnich (who I last saw the London Song Festival and who has lived up to her dramatic promise) and David Butt Philip in the lead roles of Mimi and Rudolfo. Domnich has a beautiful consistency across her range and, in keeping with her consumptive role, never oversang and managed to bring a frailty to her role without compromising the music. Philip was perfect as the insecure young man, sulking at his betrayal.

Sky Ingram as Musetta was the healthy foil to Mimi's fragile constitution, yet played her 'tart with a heart' role sensitively, and was as concerned and constant to her friend as she was dismissive of the men in her life. Puccini gave both ladies plenty to do and Ingram excelled at her coquettish solos as well as her more moving moments when Musetta sells her finery to try and buy medicine.

La Boheme - English Touring Opera - © Richard Hubert Smith
La Boheme - English Touring Opera - © Richard Hubert Smith
The rest of the players, Musetta's men – Marcello (Grant Doyle) and Alcindoro (Andrew Glover), and Rudolfo's 'crew' - Schaunard (Njabulo Madlala), Collinne (Matthew Stiff) and Benoit (Adam Player), each brought individuality and interest to their roles. It was the combined effort of all that made the dramatic conclusion so moving and brought a sympathetic tear to eye.

Under the direction of Michael Rosewell the ETO orchestra had much more to do than yesterday's 'Wild Man' and rose to the challenge. The cluncking cadences of Donizetti were replaced by drama and picture painting – from the glacial flutes and icy harps depicting the freezing winter, through a barely there accompaniment for the perpetually fading Mimi, to cheerful drums and pipes in the crowd scenes. Snow falling and singing birds all artfully portrayed.

An important part of the performance was the children, who were essential for the atmosphere for Act II alongside the chorus, puppet show and hat seller. Tonight the children were from St Mary and St John's C of E School, however the ETO has organised that the children at each venue will be local to that town. The ETO is always thoughtful and tonight spaces had been kept for the children so that they could watch the second half, after their performances, from the balcony.

The ETO's current season continues to play around the country (and abroad) until the end of June.
Reviewed by Hilary Glover

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