The doom-laden sound of a malign cough. The sight of artists and musicians struggling to make ends meet. A landlord pounding at the door demanding rent from the struggling tenants. Comparisons between the era of the tuberculosis-ridden Paris of La bohème and our Covid-stricken Britain seem in many ways to be trite, yet difficult to avoid. Fortunately in Grange Park Opera’s back-to-basics La bohème, a revival of Stephen Medcalf’s 2015 production overseen here by Lynne Hockney, the similarities are not dwelt on, with the focus very much on the characters and scenarios of Puccini’s great crowd-pleaser.

Ailish Tynan (Mimì), Emyr Wyn Jones (Colline)
© Marc Brenner

Jamie Vartan’s sparsely furnished stage is an easy fit for the Covid-compliance checklist, while serving to emphasise the poverty of our hand-to-mouth bohemians. The corners of the bare set are assigned to each of the four who then congregate around a make-shift table to consume what little food they have managed to forage. Despite the surroundings, the production does much to bring the camaraderie of this band of friends to life and there’s a clear spark between the quartet that runs as a solid third line beneath the relationships of Mimì & Rodolfo and Musetta & Marcello. Our Café Momus is a desolate place and much in need of an Eat Out to Help Out Scheme, but the absence of patrons and spaced out tables strikes a chord with the situation in recent months as well as providing a solution to the vicissitudes of health restrictions for the cast. Nonetheless, the atmosphere of the Café, which is such a part of the colour of the opera, does suffer from the absence of raucous chaos of other productions and the ending here to Act IV – the four bohemians retrieving hats from their much-used chest and making for the doors – strikes a jarring note in an otherwise coherent production.

William Dazeley (Marcello)
© Marc Brenner

The musical heft of this revival is given by its M’s. Ailish Tynan was in excellent voice as our consumptive heroine, singing Mimì with sensitive phrasing and offering generous forays into the higher register. One never felt that the instrument was pushed; the sound was always full and rounded, undergirded by a clear engagement with the text that resulted in a moving performance. Tynan’s simplicity was an excellent counter to the frills and flouncing of Hye-Youn Lee’s Musetta who had a terrific time rampaging around the stage. Lee threw out some terrific top notes with pizzazz, but the most appealing element of her performance was the delight she took in her enunciation, lingering and savouring the syllables, every word redolent, be it with sarcasm or with misery. Credit too, for not taking her Musetta too far into caricature in Act II so as to diminish her performance in Act IV, which Lee delivered with great pathos. Likewise, William Dazeley took great care to avoid his Marcello falling into the pit of one-dimensional ill humour; his sturdy bass is an appealing instrument, forceful without being forced, and elegantly coloured to bring real humanity to his performance, particularly in his scene with Mimì in Act III.

Andrew Shore (Alcindoro), Hye-Youn Lee (Musetta)
© Marc Brenner

Luis Chapa brought the requisite emotion to Rodolfo, but his instrument sounded forced on several occasions and his upper register seemed at times badly unsupported. Baritone Harry Thatcher was a strong Schaunard, sly looks and ready grins at every turn, and Emyr Wyn Jones was luxury casting as Colline, his velvety bass-baritone positively purring from the stage. In the pit, Stephen Barlow took a full-throttle approach to Puccini’s score, drawing a bold and rich sound from the BBC Concert Orchestra while avoiding overwhelming the singers.