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La Bohème Review, York Theatre Royal

A beautiful rendition of Puccini’s opera

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Image Credit: Richard Hubert Smith

My first opera, Giacomo Puccini’s tragic love story La Bohème, enthralled me, and dazzled the audience as well.

The English Touring Opera’s (ETO) Artistic Director James Conway first premiered the opera in 2015, but it has recently been revived by Christopher Moon-Little and is on tour until June.

Puccini’s classic opera follows six young people living at the margins of Parisian society. The bohemians–including a poet, painter, musician and philosopher– all struggle in their squalid conditions, but Puccini centres his plot on the relationship between the poet Rodolfo and Mimi, a seamstress. The latter romance ends in tragedy after Mimi succumbs to consumption.

The designs on stage are minimal yet effective. The set is dominated by a glass mirror that is successfully transformed between the acts to replicate the garret as well as the interior of the Café Momus. Such a versatile mirror was key to the desired effect of the opera.  In a director’s note, Conway details how he wanted to make a production that looked like a memory: “A dream-like vividness that does not fill the whole frame with detail”.

This dream-like introspection of youthful love is captured beautifully in the first act where we meet Rodolfo, played by Luciano Botelho, and Mimi, performed by Francesca Chiejina. The couple meet on Christmas Eve after Mimi’s candle blows out and she loses her key. In search of it, we witness the start of their troubled romance. The voice of Botelho, the tenor, alongside Chiejina, the soprano, was truly beautiful and we are captivated by their love story.

The opera is sung in the original Italian, with subtitles to help us keep up. The subtitles were surprisingly not too distracting, but the adjustment between the bright white text of them to the dark and dim setting of the opera was sometimes strenuous. Yet, overall, they translated the Italian to succinct English and so made opera more accessible.

ETO'S La Bohème was not only accessible, but also diverse. The soprano Francesca Chiejina, who plays Mimi, is amazing. Her voice entrances the audience, conveying so clearly the tumultuous emotions of Mimi. Chiejina also gets excellent support from her fellow cast-mates, including the baritones Michel de Souza and Themba Mvula as Marcello and Schaunard, Trevor Eliot Bowes as the bass philosopher Colline as well as Jenny Stafford who plays Musetta, the singer. The beauty of such voices was accompanied by a talented orchestra, conducted under Iwan Davies.

The opera is very personal to Conway, the artistic director. He explains how his love for La Bohème began from childhood and how he imagined the action, since there was no text on the sleeve but only a cover illustration to suggest the story. We certainly see Conway’s artistic vision throughout the performance; in particular, Conway details how he “Knew Mimi was dead when Rodolfo cried out her name over those reckless chords”. Mimi’s death scene is truly tragic, leaving the audience cathartically in awe.

Conway is also personally invested in the accessibility of his opera. He explains how he was committed to offering as many young children as possible their first experience of opera. This idea comes into fruition in Act 2 where the stage is bustling with young operatic singers. In the performance at the York Theatre Royal, the aspiring singers were provided by York Music Hub Choir.

I may have been one of the youngest (willing and unforced) participants there, but the audience was still packed, and the applause was loud. The ETO put on a beautiful rendition of Puccini’s opera and is currently still touring. The opera will next be performed in Chester and then will continue on to theatres including Durham, Eastbourne, Norwich, Exeter, Bath and Ulverston.

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