I always feel I have to ration the amount of Bohèmes I go to – maybe because there are so many operas and so little time. But then I go to one and I ask myself: will I ever tire of this exquisite piece of work which is just about as perfect as an opera can get. Even bad productions will satisfy if the orchestra is half decent and the singers can act.
My love affair with English Touring opera is as ardent as ever after experiencing this production. What beautiful alchemy conspired to create such magic! The dream team were in charge. James Conway, artistic director of the company was directing (unbelievably) his first Bohème, the music of which had a seminal effect on his musical tastes as a child. Michael Roswell, the Musical Director of the company and a vastly under-rated and under-appreciated conductor, was in the pit. Under his Direction both players and singers seemed to be under some benign Svengali-like spell. The design by Linbury Prize-winner Florence de Maré was intelligent and clever – very pared down but ingenious in the use of space and the division of the performing area. The young singers not only looked the part but sung and acted with total conviction. What a tremendous find Ilona Domnich is, late of St Petersberg but now thankfully permenantly entrenched in English opera. Her physical transformation from fresh and radiant beauty to pallid and wan (even her hair went from glossy to lank) was heart-breaking. This was matched by her voice which seemed to darken in timbre as the story progressed.
As always, Conway had and angle. In this production we are left in no doubt that the far from being struggling and penniless artists, these are middle-class young men playing at being Bohemian, and that the girls they associate with are genuinely on the edge of destitution and have little choice but to sell their sexual favours to survive. It is only in the final act that the men start to recognise and face up to the shallowness of their own lives and the utter hopelessness of the young women who are their playthings.
Reader, I wept! I wept in the first act from Che Gelida Manina to the end. There was respite in the second act, which never really works dramatically, but is necessary for two things: Musetta's waltz: Quando me’n vo’ and to act us a buffer between the euphoria of new love and the anguish of a broken relationship a year later in Act 3. I wept for the whole of Act 3 (I defy anyone who has been through the pain of breaking up not to do so). And by the end of the final act the woefully inadequate two man-size Kleenex I had taken in with me were two soggy balls of pulp.
To quote Michael Church in the Independent:”With opera of this calibre touring to every corner of the country, who needs London?”