In some respects, La bohème seems more at home in the edgy, buzzing area of Hackney and its small, but attractive theatre than in the glamour of the Royal Opera House. English Touring Opera’s first opera of the season is a revival of James Conway’s production of Puccini’s classic, here supervised by Christopher Moon-Little.

Matthew McKinney (Benoît), Michel de Souza, Themba Mvula, Luciano Botelho, Trevor Bowes (Bohemians)
© Richard Hubert Smith

Conway does not give us anything overly controversial in his interpretation, which is essentially a period production. Costumes are of the time and with the exception of a rather curious balloon basket which has somehow found its way into the garret, the set is in the ‘less is more’ camp. A grimy central wall which tilts and angles to be garret roof, café backdrop and tollhouse wall is entirely serviceable. A fold-down bar makes an excellent substitute for Café Momus and comes with a René-like waiter. A puppet show at the side of the stage during the second act recreates the event on stage, hijacked entertainingly by Musetta who seizes Marcello’s puppet, a deft touch.

The cast gave an energetic and emotional performance. While the singing was patchy in places, the quality of acting was high and there was never an absence of dramatic involvement in the singers. Francesca Chiejina stood out as Mimì in a performance that displayed control over an ample instrument; we were treated to some fine pianissimi as Chiejina filed down her voice to the most delicate of threads and there was plenty of tonal variety to lend real character to her role. The chemistry with her Rodolfo, sung by Luciano Botelho, was strong, but Botelho seemed to be under par on first night with uncomfortable high notes and difficulties projecting over the orchestra. In his middle register, the voice has a fragrant warmth and sensitivity, but Rodolfo does not seem the ideal role for Botelho’s instrument.

Francesca Chiejina (Mimì) and Luciano Botelho (Rodolfo)
© Richard Hubert Smith

The dynamic among the four Bohemians was strongly portrayed, a sense of camaraderie and friendship warming an otherwise frigid attic. Michel de Souza gave a sturdy Marcello, veering from frenzy to resigned calm with ease, while vocally there was much to enjoy in his articulation and sense of line. Trevor Bowes was appropriately moving in Colline’s standout moment at the end of Act 4 and Themba Mvula’s sardonic Schaunard was a wry presence on stage. April Koyejo-Audiger’s Musetta was rather too demure, both theatrically and vocally, for personal taste.

At the Café Momus
© Richard Hubert Smith

ETO’s chorus was on lively form, providing both musical heft and some capable acting. They were supplemented with young singers from the Hackney Children’s Choir for the first night. Dionysis Grammenos led a full-throttled interpretation from the pit. The orchestra was not note perfect and there were issues with balance, but we were given some vivid playing that seemed to be in the spirit of the piece. As always, ETO will be taking this production across the country, from Bath to Durham. One suspects it will be well received.