Words by Melissa Blease Theatre Royal Bath, Wednesday 31 May
English Touring Opera: opera that moves. See what they did there? It’s a strapline that’s bang on its double-meaning intention – by the time you read this, the ETO (established in 1979) will indeed have moved on to its next stop, upholding the company’s mission to tour outstanding live shows and make exceptional artistic experiences available and accessible to all, democratising and dramatically widening access to a genre that formerly fell very much into the ‘elite’ audience category. Good for the ETO! And very good for those of us who love to be moved by super-melodramatic, tragi-romantic spectacles such as La bohème: Giacomo Puccini’s gloriously grandiloquent paean to love and loss.
Paris, circa 1830: four struggling bohemians (Rodolfo, a poet; Marcello, a painter; Schaunard, a musician; Colline, a philosopher) are attempting to celebrate Christmas Eve in their freezing cold garret. The festive season looks pretty bleak indeed until Schaunard gets paid for a really weird gig (playing music to a dying parrot, since you ask) and the foursome decide to hit the town. Rodolfo, however, holds back in order to finish an article he’s writing; enter neighbour Mimì, in search of a light for her candle…
Fans of Jonathan Larson’s 1996 musical Rent may, at this point, be experiencing a strong sense of deja vu; yup, Larson’s impoverished young creatives struggling to survive in Lower Manhattan’s East Village in the thriving days of bohemian Alphabet City was indeed based on Puccini’s yarn, Larson cleverly replacing the threat of TB (rife in France during the early-to-mid 19th century) with the impending HIV/AIDS iceberg. But that was then, and La bohème is even further ‘back then’ – but the overall themes remain as enduringly enthralling (and, sadly, relevant) today as they were almost two centuries ago.
Luciano Botelho is an enchanting Rodolfo, originally brimming with first-flush-of-lurve adoration and verve that swiftly becomes subsumed by jealousy and eventually gives way to regret. And oh, Francesca Chiejina’s Mimì! It’s a role that needs a range to alternate twixt long soars, big dives, tender whispers, heart-wrenching vulnerability and glassy harshness on the turn of a centime – and Chiejina brings more than money’s worth to the role.
But La bohème is, overall, reliant on the strength and impact of the ensemble rather than offering a vehicle for any stand-alone superstars to outshine the pack, and the super-strong supporting cast don’t let each other down for a second, resulting in a shimmering concoction of enrapturing vocal melodies supported by lush, live orchestration played out against a simple but evocative set, with the whole cast strutting around in opulent period costumes throughout. And were we ever in danger of losing the plot? No! For those of us who aren’t fluent in Italian libretto, English subtitles on non-obtrusive screens either side of the stage offered a modern version of Mimì’s candle to guide us along the way.
Deliciously dramatic, ridiculously romantic and tantalisingly tragic, the ETO’s latest Bath pitstop (double-dated with Rimsky-Korsakov’s Golden Cockerel the previous evening) was simply spellbinding, and the company’s efforts duly rewarded by a full house who didn’t hold back from offering a very well-deserved standing ovation at curtain call.