In London and the South East the population is on the verge of collapse as the heat relentlessly rises into the mid-30s. At Bryanston School in the South West, however, conditions are slightly more bearable and indeed have offered some balmy evenings as Dorset Opera Festival’s 2018 season gets under way. Under its charismatic Artistic Director Roderick Kennedy, its logistic achievements remain outstanding; nothing less than the staging and preparation of two operas in just a couple of weeks with a full scale educational commitment to a well-sized chorus of young singers who benefit from an intensive training schedule and regular access to the experienced soloists.

Lauren Michelle (Musetta) and Charles Johnston (Alcindoro) © Fritz Curzon
Lauren Michelle (Musetta) and Charles Johnston (Alcindoro)
© Fritz Curzon

DO’s commitment to pedagogy for the chorus is a major factor in repertory choice, and in programming La bohème there’s an opportunity to explore just how tightly Puccini in theatrical terms constructs his operas. Peter Relton’s production is reassuringly conservative: an open stage with walls plastered with fragments of poetry and artistic sketches; bare floors and under-furnished with just one bed (one ponders on sleeping arrangements in a garret that serves four), a table and a couple of chairs, a small stove in the corner; a painted backdrop of Paris, the Eiffel Tower in the distance. The second and third acts transform easily into the Latin Quarter and the toll gate, and a large circular window on the left allows for a little subtlety – in the second, diners on the top floor of Cafe Momus, in the third a view into the garret showing exasperated silhouettes of Rodolfo and Marcello.

It’s restrained and sensible, but where Relton’s talent really shows is in the Personenregie; his focus on character interaction makes for scenes of powerful atmosphere. The camaraderie of Act 1 with the jovial camaraderie of the four struggling artists is credible, and more to the point, enticing. The relationships between them are well-sketched, the choreography of the Benoît scene well-timed. Likewise, the atmosphere of the Latin Quarter is joyously evoked, and the scene with Musetta’s aria “Quando me'n vo” is laid out well, the gloominess of Alcindoro and Marcello, present and past lovers sitting at the same table bemoaning her behaviour a nice touch. The last scene is moving in just the right way, the warmth and energy of earlier acts fading into bleak lethargy.

Nicholas Lester (Marcello), Pauls Putnins (Colline) and Ross Ramgobin (Schaunard) © Fritz Curzon
Nicholas Lester (Marcello), Pauls Putnins (Colline) and Ross Ramgobin (Schaunard)
© Fritz Curzon

It seems only fair to comment first on the quality of the chorus, including some very young singers indeed, who gave a boisterous and flavoursome performance, singing in unison and with a focus not just on how, but what they were singing. Shelley Jackson was a captivating Mimì, a delicate and charming presence which became deeply moving in the third act. Vocally, she showed well-integrated registers with a beguilingly full lower voice and secure top notes. It’s a nicely sized voice, but there’s a flair for nimble pianissimo which was sensibly deployed. Adam Smith had a vivid stage presence as Rodolfo, but seemed underpowered and frequently struggled to sing over the orchestra. Baritone Nicholas Lester has sung and impressed at Dorset Opera before; here as Marcello, he was most impressive, the voice rich and well projected with clear diction and plenty of colour. He conveyed chemistry with his Musetta sung by Lauren Michelle, who brought a lovely diva-quality to her performance. Sumptuously sung, generous on the highs, Michelle very much dominated Act 2.

Shelley Jackson (Mimì) and Adam Smith (Rodolfo) © Fritz Curzon
Shelley Jackson (Mimì) and Adam Smith (Rodolfo)
© Fritz Curzon

In the secondary roles, Pauls Putnins and Ross Ramgobin were strongly cast as Colline and Schaunard, the former displaying a bold, forceful bass-baritone, the later elegantly sung under an unseasonably thick coat. Charles Johnston’s Alcindoro was a crusty old stick, appropriately outraged and downtrodden, and Johnston doubled as the equally unfortunate Benoît, giving a comic turn as the lusty old landlord in need of female companionship.

The DO Orchestra under Peter Robinson gave one of the strongest performances I have heard from them; quality of playing was generally high and the noticeable absence of significant flaws in the brass was to be commended. Robinson’s reading was lush and dynamic; a highly enjoyable Bohème indeed.