La bohème (English Touring Opera – Tour)

A new production of Puccini’s evergreen tear-jerker that’s musically first-rate

David Butt Philip as Rodolfo and Ilona Domnich as Mimì in La bohème (ETO)
David Butt Philip as Rodolfo and Ilona Domnich as Mimì in La bohème (ETO)
(© Richard Hubert Smith)
Let’s gloss over the staging because it’s dull and a touch threadbare. Both director James Conway and designer Florence de Maré have produced better things this season, he with The Siege of Calais, she with The Wild Man of the West Indies, so it’s a shame that La bohème feels like an afterthought. Did English Touring Opera put the pot-boiler on the back burner? I couldn’t say, but it doesn’t look great.

Musically, though, this is a dream Bohème. Anyone with a soul, be they operaphile or merely curious, will succumb to ETO‘s aural feast. If you live too far from a city to profit from the major producing houses, be assured: this touring version is as good as it gets.

David Butt Philip reprises the role he delivered so well for ENO last year, only this time he gets to sing Rodolfo in Italian. It makes a huge difference, because by using Puccini's own language the young tenor is able to deploy his instrument with untrammelled fervour. It rips through the auditorium and tears at the heart.

His bromance with housemate Marcello works as well as his love affair with poor Mimì. Grant Doyle, vocally bigger and a bit gruffer than of old, lends his substantial baritone and top-drawer acting skills to the struggling painter, forming convincing relationships not only with his flatmates but also with Sky Ingram‘s splendidly emphatic and musically refulgent Musetta. The pair rub sparks off each other and create a believable couple whose relationship is simultaneously rocky and rock-solid.

Matthew Stiff‘s basso warmth is ideal for Colline, his interpretation unaffected by the lugubriousness that sometimes comes with this low-lying role, and an excellent quartet of young starvers-in-the-garret is completed by Njabulo Madlala‘s Schaunard, whose own cough when Mimì succumbs at the end of the opera suggests that he’ll have what she’s having.

'Go for the music'

The doomed heroine herself is sung by Ilona Domnich, whose beguiling Mélisande at the Arcola Theatre‘s 2013 Grimeborn Festival was such a revelation. And Mimì suits her just as well: indeed, few recent sopranos have captured the dying woman’s emotional and physical frailty with such devastating fullness. Yet throughout her character’s suffering Domnich’s stylish intonation and carefully considered vocal colours remain faultless.

The opera’s cameo roles are well taken by Adam Player, Andrew Glover, Dominic J Walsh and Gareth Brynmor John, and there are confident, firmly sung contributions both from the ensemble and from a well drilled, locally sourced children’s chorus.

Conductor Michael Rosewell is a known quantity in this repertoire, of course – his Puccini double-bill in 2011 lingers in the memory – so it’s no surprise that the opera sweeps along with something approaching grandeur as he makes a modest ETO orchestra sound like double the number.

Here, then, is an opera that deserves to cause a fracas at the box office, and if the production side of things had been stronger this traditional-dress Bohème would have been a transcendent experience. Not that it’s dismal – the third act is properly evocative and snow-covered, and it’s a pleasure to see the company’s Eugene Onegin mirror get another outing – but the opening act is weirdly staged with the students’ apartment graced by cubic rostra, a Montgolfier balloon basket and a Willy Wonka-esque glass tube, while the Café Momus scene is a cluttered mess, despite being leavened by some subtly pointed guignol puppetry in the background.

Go for the music. It’s off the scale of good.

Following its opening at the Hackney Empire, La bohème tours to Truro, Poole, Norwich, Sheffield, Cheltenham, Wolverhampton, Snape, Leicester, Coventry, Exeter, Crawley, Canterbury, Blackpool, Buxton, Durham, Perth and Cambridge.