The lush swell of romantic strings, opulent orchestration, big full-throated voices, bustling crowd scenes: on the face of it, Puccini’s La bohème wouldn’t seem like an obvious choice for a cut down version in a small local theatre. But clearly, that hasn’t deterred HGO, who, in the petite North London settings of Jacksons Lane Theatre, have served up something of a classic.

Saran Suebantiwongse (Marcello), Monwabisi Lindi (Rodolfo) © @LaurentCphoto
Saran Suebantiwongse (Marcello), Monwabisi Lindi (Rodolfo)
© @LaurentCphoto

Director Daisy Evans takes a straightforward approach to the spending constraints of small scale opera: don’t bother with sets, props or fancy costumes: just get your singing actors to mime everything, which our quartet of lads do brilliantly. When Rodolfo consigns his magnum opus to the imaginary stove, it burns every bit as brightly as it does in any full scale production you've seen; Marcello gives loving attention to his problematic painting of the Red Sea; the devouring of Schaunard’s feast is hilarious, as is his depiction of the ill-fated parrot. The horseplay with the landlord Benoît is utterly winning, soon to be trumped by a street scene in and outside Café Momus of vivacity that one would have thought impossible with only a dozen or so chorus members.

Café Momus © @LaurentCphoto
Café Momus
© @LaurentCphoto

All four of the boys also excel vocally, none more so than South African tenor Monwabisi Lindi as Rodolfo. It may be a few years before his voice is big enough to sing this role in a full size opera house, but I want to be there when it happens, because he is a star in the making. He injects heartfelt emotion into both his voice and his acting, with an easy charm and a delightful lilt to his phrasing that utterly transported me. Opposite him as Mimì, Fiona McCardle certainly isn’t short of power and her duets with Lindi became genuinely thrilling as they soared above the orchestral crescendi. But there was a hard edge to the voice that needs smoothing out and McCardle’s acting needs attention: she spent all of Act 1 and much of the rest of the opera with a permanent beaming grin that ill became the material.

Fiona McCardle (Mimì) © @LaurentCphoto
Fiona McCardle (Mimì)
© @LaurentCphoto

Amongst a universally strong supporting cast, I’ll single out Saran Suebsantiwongse for a Marcello sung with strength and smoothness and Conall O’Neill (Colline) for a powerful bass voice and a knockout vecchia zimarra – but plaudits also to all of Eliza Safjan as Musetta, Humphrey Thompson as Schaunard and Michael Birnbaum (doubling up the hapless roles of Benoît and Alcindoro).

Jonathan Lyness has done an exceptional job of crafting an orchestral reduction of Puccini's score for just twelve musicians. With music director Juliane Gallant conducting a rich and polished reading, I can honestly say that I didn’t for a moment miss having the full orchestra. In a backhanded way, it was almost an improvement: the cantabile lines of each part of the orchestra became clear and present when stripped of the wash created by more instruments.

Saran Suebsantiwongse, Humphrey Thompson, Conall O'Neill, Monwabisi Lindi © @LaurentCphoto
Saran Suebsantiwongse, Humphrey Thompson, Conall O'Neill, Monwabisi Lindi
© @LaurentCphoto

There are two things about this production that I don’t like. Evans has opted to wrap La bohème in a framing story of Rodolfo going in for a therapy session, years after Mimì’s death. It’s unnecessary (the original story is perfectly strong enough), it’s clumsy and it just gets in the way – although, fortunately, in relatively small doses. Secondly, I’m not a fan of surtitles which choose not to translate what’s being sung nor even to abbreviate it, but to substitute words that are designed either to amuse with modern slang or to suit the director’s alternative story. Plenty of the substitutions are funny enough, but that doesn’t stop me disliking the disconnect between the English I’m seeing and the Italian I’m hearing (although I accept that if you don't understand any of the Italian, this isn't an issue).

But those are cavils. Looking at the production as a whole, was I carried away by the romance? Yes. By the nostalgia of lost youth? Yes. Did I share in the matey good cheer of the young lads? Yes. Did I enjoy seeing La bohème sung by singers of the right sort of age for the characters? For sure. And was I in floods at the end? Absolutely. Job done.

****1