Puccini’s great crowd-pleaser La bohème is more than familiar to audiences all over the world, but this tale of poverty-stricken love and death remains a compelling watch, whether you are seeing it for the first time (and it’s always a good first opera for newcomers) or the twentieth. Some directors get tempted to spice up this old favourite in exotic new ways, often with unpalatable results; others, perhaps more wisely, stick to the story as Puccini first imagined it. Directing for English Touring Opera, James Conway has resolutely chosen the classic route, creating an elegantly simple and traditional production which, while not always capturing the hedonism and sparkle of Puccini’s bohemian scenes, achieves genuine pathos in its tragic moments.

David Butt Philip (Rodolfo) and Ilona Domnich (Mimì) © Richard Hubert Smith
David Butt Philip (Rodolfo) and Ilona Domnich (Mimì)
© Richard Hubert Smith

Florence de Maré’s simple and economical set, principally consisting of a large sheet of plate glass which tilts at an angle to suggest an artist’s garret, or stands upright as the window of Cafe Momus, works well (and, one suspects, will also travel well, as English Touring Opera set off on their long pilgrimage around the UK). De Maré makes particularly clever use of the ability of glass to be alternatively transparent or opaque, assisted by a very bohemian level of dust and dirt throughout: characters occasionally wipe the glass clean to see themselves, or to gaze out across an imagined Paris. The famous street market scene is stripped down to a Punch and Judy show with a few stallholders on the side, but still feels fun, busy and festive, without being overtly Christmassy. When you look closely at Judy, she bears more than a passing resemblance to our Musetta, and the puppet even mimes along when Musetta takes to the floor. Little intricacies like this make us feel that, despite the simple style, Conway and de Maré have kept an intimate grip on the finer details too. And of course, it snows very prettily: even a minimalist La bohème can’t go without that.

Conductor Michael Rosewell conjures a warm sound from the English Touring Opera Orchestra. Some arias feel a little on the slow side, with “Che gelida manina” sounding particularly tough to sustain as a result, but elsewhere the music moves along with a flourish. This production also incorporates an exciting outreach project: English Touring Opera are inviting children from a primary school local to each tour performance to sing on stage with them for the street scene: for Hackney, it was the children of St Mary’s and St John’s CE School, NW4 (coordinated by Dee Oelmann), who did a superb job. Directly involving local communities and young people in such a high-quality and traditional production can only be good for opera, and English Touring Opera (and all the volunteer coordinators who are helping it happen) should be warmly commended. The courage of this idea pays off in spades, with the children a charming addition. 

The highlight of La bohème is, of course, Puccini’s superb writing for the lovers at its heart. Ilona Domnich was a moving, engaging, and playful Mimì, trembling with emotion, fully alive to the beauty of the world and of Puccini’s music. Her phrasing exquisitely judged, her acting faultless, Domnich was a treat throughout: her warm, lyrical and utterly distinctive soprano seemed perfect for Mimì. Occasionally, her Italian could be slightly crisper, with a few consonants blurring along the way, but her masterful performance makes this production worth seeing for Domnich alone.

Ilona Domnich (Mimì) © Richard Hubert Smith
Ilona Domnich (Mimì)
© Richard Hubert Smith

David Butt Philip was a wonderful Rodolfo, who started fairly neutrally, but grew on us. The slight sob in his tenor distracted me a little at first, but his voice became ever more exciting through the evening, with a thrilling strength in his final scenes which really tugged at the heartstrings. Butt Philip’s “Che gelida manina” grew into a superb account of first love and passion, while his final cries of “Mimì!” had the tears rolling down my cheeks.

Sky Ingram got her Musetta off to a flying start, and gave a fabulous performance which explored the full range of Puccini’s vixen temptress. Her soprano clean and appealing, Ingram’s acting was an especial delight, making Musetta coquettishly prim at times, fabulously angry at others, always confident and sensually charged. Grant Doyle was in excellent voice as Marcello, combining the slightly idealistic artist with the hopelessly tempestuous romantic, his chemistry with Ingram cracklingly good.

Sky Ingram (Musetta) and Grant Doyle (Marcello) © Richard Hubert Smith
Sky Ingram (Musetta) and Grant Doyle (Marcello)
© Richard Hubert Smith

Matthew Stiff was a richly-voiced Colline, who sang his farewell to his coat beautifully, though without much dramatic punch; however, this surreal, bathetic moment is always a hard one to pull off in the middle of Mimì’s death scene, and Stiff did his best. Njabulo Madlala made for a convivial and dapper Schaunard. Madlala has natural stage presence and engaging style, though he didn’t always sound quite settled on his line: some clarity should develop during the tour.

James Conway’s production may be a little restrained on banter, but hits all the emotional high notes, is compellingly played and superbly sung. Bring your handkerchief: you will need it.