For the couple next to me it was their first live opera, and they enjoyed it hugely. To anyone else who might be tempted to catch La bohème on Welsh National Opera's spring tour, I can do no better than report the reaction of two opera virgins who gave it a whirl. They were particularly delighted to discover there were surtitles; no one had told them about those before.
Annabel Arden's 2012 production, with its trademark simplicity and throwaway ingenuity, is certainly easy to admire, but it is far from ideal. There's a surfeit of smiles in the opening act and the joshing courtship between Mimì and Rodolfo denies the vulnerability and romance that infuse Puccini's score. That side of things is left to the WNO Orchestra, and it delivers in spades under the eloquent baton of Manlio Benzi, a maestro whose credentials as a conductor of his native Italian opera are well known to audiences at Opera Holland Park.
Arden's modest touring production, revived here by Caroline Chaney, is cleverly designed by Stephen Brimson Lewis to be adaptable to a range of venues, but it looks diminished on the mighty Millennium Centre stage. In particular the busy second act with its chaotic comings and goings at the Café Momus is uncharacteristically static at first, then falls to pieces towards the end as Arden loses her struggle to knit its strands together.
The later acts are significantly more successful. Visual ideas hit the mark, pathos comes to the fore and her delicate pacing of the heroine's harrowing demise gives the tear-ducts a decent work-out.
'Snaffling the limelight'
Yet some of Arden's scenic touches confound, it must be said. Why are the starving students such an ungallant bunch? They don't only evade payment of their rent arrears, they gleefully fleece the landlord of what is rightfully his. And what are we to make of the delivery boy who tags along with Schaunard (Gareth Brynmor John) then stays to enjoy the party? Incidental conceits these may be, but pondering their purpose becomes a distraction. Take the tatty old armchair. Wherever the plot may go it's always there, even in the snowscape of Puccini's breathtaking third act.
That's why it might be unfair to criticise Marina Costa-Jackson for overplaying Mimì's dimpled grin and coquettish flirting in her entry scene. She was probably just doing Arden's bidding. A couple of acts later, as doom loomed, the American soprano not only sang with more grace but she suffered better as well.
Alas for Costa-Jackson's duets, her fellow-countryman Dominick Chenes cut a ramrod figure as her lover, Rodolfo. Notwithstanding his lusty timbre, the tenor frequently wandered off the note and failed to inject much by way of Italianate passion, whether aural or theatrical, into his foursquare delivery. (N.B. these two principals are sharing tour duties with alternates Jessica Muirhead and Matteo Lippi.)
Prominent elsewhere in an otherwise strong cast are Gary Griffiths and Lauren Fagan as Marcello and Musetta. So good are they, indeed, that this secondary pair of lovers came perilously close to snaffling the limelight from the tragic leads. And connoisseurs of Colline's ‘coat' aria should take note: I've rarely heard it more rapturously sung than it is here by Jihoon Kim. If there's such a thing as a lyric bass, he's it.
La bohème tours to Bristol, Milton Keynes, Llandudno, Plymouth and Southampton until 28 April.