An innovative and interesting take on Puccini’s classic.
While COVID-19 saw Nevill Holt Opera hold its 2021 season outdoors, this year it returns to its beautiful 400 seat opera house, installed inside an historic stable block courtyard. La bohème proves to be an excellent choice for its first production of 2022 as it takes full advantage of the venue’s intimacy, while Mathilda du Tillieul McNicol’s thoughtful and broadly contemporary staging enables many points to come across well.
Basia Bińkowska’s set is highly intelligent in comprising a long boxlike room, across the front of which run a series of frosted glass panels. These can be pulled back to reveal, in turn, Rodolfo and Marcello’s garret, Café Momus (with the crowds who fill the stage at the start of Act II hiding the necessary switching of props), and the tavern where Marcello and Musetta lodge. By making use of the same space in different ways, the garret here can be roughly the same size as the one in Jonathan Miller’s production for English National Opera. The Coliseum stage may be far larger, but there the men’s abode is placed within the larger building that it occupies, meaning it only takes up a small portion of the area.
The sliding panels are used very shrewdly so that at the end of ‘O suave fanciulla’ Mimì pulls them shut so that she and Rodolfo can have an intimate moment together. The cleverness derives from the fact that Puccini prescribed that the final notes should be sung from offstage so that the sound drifted through to the audience. This normally requires the lovers to exit the stage, but by pulling the panels across the pair the same effect is achieved with them remaining in the garret.
It is Mimì who pulls the panels back at the start, which is all part of an approach that puts her centre stage in every way. The philosophy underlying the production is that ‘Mimì could have been a proficient and talented poet, writer or philosopher’ but ‘faced with the knowledge of her illness, what if she makes the choice to enter into Bohemia for the last four acts of her life?’. It is questionable how clearly this notion really comes across, but certainly this staging works to the idea that Mimì’s meeting with Rodolfo is premeditated as she gazes on the garret from afar before the action even starts, and deliberately blows out her candle so that she can approach claiming she needs a light. Mimì is made out not to be timid and subservient, but rather intelligent and proactive. This affects the dynamics of her first encounter with Rodolfo for, although there is a certain sweetness and innocence to it still, lines such as ‘Importuna è la vicina’ (you’ve a bothersome neighbour) are not proclaimed with an embarrassed or apologetic tone. Rather, they are asserted with a glint in the eye so that they become part of the flirtation in their own right.
The main Chorus may only be thirteen strong but, along with the excellent Children’s Chorus (from Bringhurst Primary School and Lodge Park Academy), delineate the lines very well to produce both a balanced and powerful sound in ‘Aranci, datteri! Caldi i marroni!’. More is also made of the role of Parpignol (Cameron Mitchell) than in many productions, as he is dressed as a bear and children run off with the head to his costume. The set is small enough that the men and Mimì can sit at one end of a long table in café Momus, and Musetta and Alcindoro at the other, while all still being close enough to create a coherent scene. Indeed, the fact that there are people seated between the two parties emphasises just how much they are making a spectacle of themselves. However, ‘Quando me’n vo’’ itself is presented quite differently so that Musetta (Alexandra Oomens on good form) can take the stage by storm, free from excessive distractions. As she dominates the proceedings, everyone else executes their actions in slow motion, thus capturing the sense of a bustling café without drawing attention away from the main protagonist. While many productions in larger venues actually have a tattoo on stage at the end of the scene, this version proves just as effective for us simply seeing everyone’s reactions to the sight of one. However, it does seem a little odd that Alcindoro (Andrew Tipple who also plays Benoît) is not seen returning at the end of the scene to discover he has two bills to pay.
“La bohème proves to to be an excellent choice for its first production of 2022…”
Act III feels quite emotional, and very interestingly it reverses the endings for each of the two couples. When Marcello and Musetta trade insults it fires the passion in them and they disappear inside the tavern together. Conversely, after Rodolfo and Mimì sing ‘Ci lascierem alla stagion dei fior!’ (We’ll part when the flowers bloom) she shuts the glass panels on him, thus actually showing us the separation that has always occurred by the start of Act IV.
Francesca Chiejina has great presence as Mimì with her soprano possessing a very full and rounded tone. It may not always perhaps lend the top lines a particularly light, ethereal quality, but there is never any cause to doubt the quality of her sound. Peter Scott Drackley has a very robust and powerful tenor that may not entirely capture the lyricism required of some of the lines, but which is extremely impressive at the top of the register. His climax to ‘Che gelida manina’ is excellent as he sustains the high C on ‘speranza’, and never gives any impression of wanting to come off the note at the earliest opportunity.
The three other men are all strong, and delineate their different characters very well. Christopher Nairne, with his highly effective baritone, portrays Marcello as a figure who clearly likes to see himself as a far trendier character than Rodolfo, while Dingle Yandell captures both the social awkwardness and offbeat humour of the philosopher Colline. His bass-baritone is extremely assertive and impressive and his performance of ‘Vecchia zimarra’ one of the undoubted highlights of the evening. Dominic Sedgwick, decked out in a cravat and velvet jacket, produces a very smooth sound as Schaunard and hints at the musician’s outgoing character in many subtle ways. In café Momus he is initially the only one of the main protagonists to don a pointed party hat, and, when Colline follows suit, he feels forced to go one better and put on two as if he has horns. Schaunard and Colline’s dancing and duelling is genuinely amusing, and it also leaves Schaunard looking convincingly awkward in a paint splattered overall when Musetta and Mimì enter, as he recognises his attire is far too flippant for the occasion and desperately tries to change out of it.
The opera’s final moments here take place not in the garret, but in front of it as everyone steps out from that setting. While this does help us to focus on the individuals, something is lost by removing them from their context. At the end of Rodolfo and Mimì’s heart to heart it becomes harder to feel a jolt as Mimì takes a turn for the worse, which normally prompts Schaunard to rush back into the room. The ending also seems rather rushed as one does not sense that the ‘silence’ that precedes the final shattering music will go on forever, which is the feeling that needs to be generated. In spite of this, the playing of Manchester Camerata, under the baton of Nicholas Chalmers, is for the most part excellent, and should certainly be counted as another positive in an evening that possesses more than its fair share of them.
• This La bohème will also be performed in concert at Lincoln Cathedral on 18 June.
• Nevill Holt Opera’s other main production in its 2022 season, The Barber of Seville, runs between 23 and 29 June.
• In addition to the two main operas, NHO’s 2022 summer festival features eight other concerts that cover orchestral music, jazz and film, and run between 10 June and 9 July. For further details of all events and tickets visit the Nevill Holt Opera website.