La bohème: a classic of the operatic repertory. Many will recall with fondness a certain production or treasure a particular Rodolfo/ Mimì pairing. The challenge for any company presenting a new staging is to brush away comparisons with old favourites, at least for as long as the performance lasts. Unfortunately, Grange Park Opera’s new Bohème runs alongside John Copley’s shortly to be retired production at the Royal Opera and comparisons – especially when using some of the same sight gags, such as Marcello spraying out a gulp of wine as Benoît arrives – are inevitable. Despite a stellar Mimì, this was something of a disappointment.

Several of Stephen Medcalf’s ideas work well. Set designer Jamie Vartan’s garret has clear ‘working areas’ for each of the four bohemians, though why Schaunard and Colline have to be present from the start of Act I is a mystery (in Act IV they at least effect the set change). Schaunard plays piano for Musetta’s Waltz, Marcello’s painting of the Red Sea is recycled as an inn sign in Act III, and then deployed as a makeshift bed for Mimì. In the quartet, Marcello and Musetta have their vicious spat either side of Rodolfo and Mimì, oblivious to the other couple’s more tender parting. There are swift scene changes between acts, which maintain tension.

Café Momus, however, suffers shockingly poor trade for a Christmas Eve, in the most under-populated Act II ever. Miscalculations range from poor timing – Alcindoro arrives back at Momus far too early – to poor direction: at the end of Act III, Marcello throws Musetta out, but she then hangs around and hogs the rest of the scene, searching through her bag, tidying her make-up, completely distracting the eye from the main couple.

One curiosity struck me in Act IV. Colline sings farewell to his coat (which he only bought on Christmas Eve), despite wearing another jacket and then not heading off to sell it. The bohemians have a dressing up box, providing their ‘quadrille’ costumes. When Mimì dies, Rodolfo does not rush to her side, but shares a group hug with his friends, who then all don top hats from the box and head off through the doors. Are these rich boys ‘playing’ at being poor? If so, it’s a bit late in the day to introduce such a weird spin…

Susana Gaspar was a peach of a Mimì, lovable and sincere. “Mi chiamano Mimì” was tenderly phrased and perfectly weighted, especially the line “April’s first kiss is mine”. Mimì’s farewell to Rodolfo (“Donde lieta uscì al tuo grido”) was heartfelt. Gaspar is a fine lyric soprano and a sensitive actress. During Act III, when Mimì hides to overhear Rodolfo confiding in Marcello, your eye is constantly drawn to her reactions, especially the realisation that Mimì’s life is effectively over. Gianluca Terranova, however, offered a robusto Rodolfo, less poet, more Calaf, seriously misjudging the scale of the House and frequently veering sharp. His Jack-the-lad acting failed to endear. 

In a classy bit of casting, Brett Polegato was the pick of the bohemians as a sympathetic Marcello, gorgeously describing (in the Act IV duet with Rodolfo) how every painting he attempts turns into a portrait of Musetta. Quirijn de Lang was an elegant Schaunard, while Nicholas Crawley was a firm-voiced Colline. Musetta seems an odd role for Kelebogile Besong who possesses an imposing, smoky soprano. I suspect she is more suited for heavier spinto repertoire. A long-held note at the end of her Waltz song irritated rather than teased.

The biggest disappointment came from the pit, where conductor Stephen Barlow led an unsympathetic account of Puccini’s score, constantly pushing the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra ahead of his singers, head down, ploughing on regardless. I accept that tempi are usually determined during rehearsals, but the conductor has to bear some responsibility to listen to his singers onstage and feel when they are singing a phrase more expansively and adjust accordingly.

A frustrating evening, on many levels, although Gaspar’s Mimì was worth the trek through Hampshire’s leafy countryside.