Saturday 25 June 2016

Youthful La Boheme - Christine Collins Young Artists at Opera Holland Park

Stephen Aviss as Rodolfo and Christopher Cull as Marcello in La Boheme at Opera Holland Park. Photo Robert Hugill
Stephen Aviss as Rodolfo and Christopher Cull as Marcello in La Boheme at Opera Holland Park. Photo Robert Hugill
Puccini La Boheme; Alice Privett, Stephen Aviss, Christopher Cull, Elizabeth Karani, Julien Van Mellaerts, Richard Walshe, dir: Stephen Barlow/Rose Purdie, cond: Paul Wingfield; Christine Collins Young Artists performance at Opera Holland Park
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jun 24 2016
Youthful enthusiasm and teamwork in the annual young artists performance

 Alice Privett as Mimi and Stephen Aviss as Rodolfo in  La Boheme  at Opera Holland Park. Photographer  Robert Workman
 Alice Privett as Mimi and Stephen Aviss as Rodolfo
in La Boheme at Opera Holland Park. Photo Robert Workman
This year's Christine Collins Young Artists performance at Opera Holland Park was Puccini's La Boheme on 24 June 2016, in Stephen Barlow's new production, designed by Andrew D Edwards. Associate director Rose Purdie was responsible for directing the Young Artists, and associate conductor Paul Wingfield was in the pit with the City of London Sinfonia, with Alice Privett as Mimi, Stephen Aviss as Rodolfo, Christopher Cull as Marcello, Elizabeth Karani as Musetta, Julien Van Mellaerts as Schaunard and Richard Walshe as Colline, plus David Woloszko, James Harrison and Michael Bradley from the main cast as Benoit, Alcindoro and Parpignol.

I had not seen Stephen Barlow's production which debuted on 11 June, so this was my first experience. At Opera Holland Park, the director and designer have to decide what to do about the facade of Holland Park House, which is a very visible presence around the stage. The options are simply to use it, disguise it or ignore it. Barlow and Edwards chose to use it, setting the tale of Bohemians in Paris in the 16th century. Little in the text conflicts with this setting, and it works as well as moving the piece to the 1950s, but it remains a surprise to see Rodolfo (Stephen Aviss) and Marcello (Christopher Cull) in doublet and hose!

Stephen Aviss as Rodolfo in  La Boheme  at Opera Holland Park. Photographer  Robert Workman
Stephen Aviss as Rodolfo
in  La Boheme at Opera Holland Park. Photo Robert Workman
The production was deliberately theatrical, the students' garret was a stage with a stage, with the design evoking the stage at the Globe Theatre, and Marcello's painting was a full cloth back-drop. Throughout the opera these cloth back-drops were visibly changed by stage-hands (in 16th century gear), and for the end of Act One we had a street scene, with an illuminated moon and for the final climactic note from Rodolfo and Mimi (Alice Privett) we saw them in silhouette against the moon. During Act Three, when there was no backdrop and the city gates were set up in front of Holland Park House, a stage hand produced a snow effect.

In the programme book there was printed a quote from Arthur Ransome, 'Bohemia is not a place - It's a state of mind' and like Stephen Medcalf's production at Grange Park Opera last year (see my review) the theatrical element was meant to evoke this, the sense that these young people are in Bohemia because they want to be, and that Bohemia could be anywhere.

It helped having young singers performing the roles, looking the part of young people in a garret.
Though this is always a risk, and not every young singer has developed the stamina to enable their voice to easily ride Puccini's rich orchestra. In a theatre like Opera Holland Park this is a bigger problem as there isn't a pit. There was a sense of the orchestra dominating at climaxes, and wisely Stephen Aviss never pushed his voice, but conductor Paul Wingfield did an admirable job of balancing the need for a lush romantic sound from the orchestra, whilst ensuring the voices were not covered.

Alice Privett we last saw as Giulietta in Bellini's Capuleti e i Montecchi with Pop-Up Opera (see my review) and as Romilda in Handel's Serse with Longborough Opera (see my review) . She made a poised, self-possessed Mimi, one clearly in charge of her own destiny. Privett has a fine lyric voice, but without that hint of lushness which makes for a classic Mimi, but compensated for this with a highly intelligent, musical performance so that her famous aria in Act One was beautifully shaped, and she died movingly.

Stephen Aviss was a name new to me, he has covered Ruggero in La Rondine for British Youth Opera, and covered Rodolfo in La Boheme for English National Opera. He has an interesting voice, one with a degree of tension in it but which is produced beautifully evenly over the whole range. His performance suggested he may develop into an interesting spinto tenor. He and Alice Privett had created a strong relationship and the conclusion to Act One was delightfully touching, but it was in Act Three where they showed their real worth giving this scene a sense of character, strength and intensity.

They were supported by a fine group of Bohemians. Christopher Cull was a very upright Marcello. We have previously seen him as Tarquinius in Britten's The Rape of Lucretia (see my review) and as Lelio in Wolf-Ferrari's Le donne curiose (see my review) both at the Guildhall School. I thought at first his performance was a little stiff, but this made sense in the way the scene with Elizabeth Karani's Musetta was played in Act Two, as Cull's Marcello sat stiff backed ignoring the increasingly outrageous attempts of Karani's Musetta to entice him. Which made his capitulation all the more moving, and his verse of the waltz-song was thrillingly sung.

Julien Van Mellaerts (whom we saw in Rossini's La Gazzetta at the Royal College of Music) and Richard Walshe (who was Figaro in Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro at the Royal College of Music) made a fine double act as Schaunard and Colline. Van Mellaerts was finely amusing in his solo in Act One (when the Bohemians have absolutely no interest in Schaunard's recitation of how he got the money which has bought them the food), and Walshe gave a fine farewell to his overcoat. But more than that, they joined with Christopher Cull and Stephen Aviss to bring out a delightful sense of camaraderie and shared experience in the lives of the four Bohemians, you really did get a sense of it being the four young men against the world. The horse-play was perhaps a little more stately, less rumbustious than usual, but that is no bad thing and the mock dance etc in Act Four made sense in the new context.

Elizabeth Karani (whom we saw as the Female Chorus in Britten's The Rape of Lucretia at the Guildhall School and in Jonathan Dove's The Little Green Swallow with British Youth Opera) was a pert and pretty Musetta, singing the waltz song with a lovely sense of clarity which suggested an admirable fluency in coloratura, yet combined with wit and a sense of humour.

David Woloszko was a very funny, and amazingly padded, Benoit, with James Harrison and Michael Bradley contributing characterful cameos as Alcindoro and Parpignol. Alistair Sutherland (from the Opera Holland Park chorus) was the fine customs sergeant.

The great set pieces all worked beautifully, and Stephen Barlow's production made great use of the Opera Holland Park chorus, all of whom participated with a will in the Cafe Momus scene. The children's chorus had been admirably trained, they made a good lusty sound (there were 12 of them) and entered into the action in a way which seemed to not affect the quality of their singing.

But it was the quiet moments too which worked well too, the poignant duet for Rodolfo and Mimi in Act Three, and of course the final scene. Here the young singers performed with admirable restraint, enabling the moving drama to tell.

Conductor Paul Wingfield took quite a relaxed view of the work. The fast scenes were still quite lively, but he allowed the music time to breathe and gave it space. The result was a performance which revelled in the lushness of Puccini's score, but allowed moments of fine-grained detail in the orchestration, all finely played by the City of London Sinfonia.

At the end of the performance James Clutton, director of opera at Opera Holland Park, paid tribute to the late Christine Collins in this, the fifth year of the young artists scheme which she helped start. A dozen former young artists are performing in the main productions at Opera Holland Park this year, as well as conductors and directors, showing just how the scheme is maturing.

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