REVIEW: La Boheme, Opera Holland Park ✭✭✭

Tim Hochstrasser reviews Puccini’s La Boheme presented as part of Opera Holland Park’s 2023 season.

La BohemeLa Bohème
Opera Holland Park
3 Stars
Opera Holland Park Website

Given the (over-) familiarity of this opera, the challenge facing any director is a steep one. The temptation to take the setting as far away as possible from later nineteenth-century Paris is great, but on the other hand this is a central work in the genre of ‘verismo’, where gritty realism is at the heart of its aesthetics. Where is the right tipping point to be found?

Natascha Mitchell decides to locate this production in a 1950s Italian film studio where a period drama in the Belle Époque is underway. A crackly version of an Edith Piaf number gets the evening underway, and all Puccini’s characters are involved in the shoot – so Rodolfo is a scriptwriter, Mimi a wardrobe assistant, Musetta a singer, and Marcello a set designer and so forth. In theory this is a clever conceit but for three of the four acts it turns out to be more distracting than insightful.

La Boheme
Cast and Chorus of La Boheme. Photo: Craig Fuller.

The set is cluttered with the paraphernalia of film-making, including a large camera that moves in front of the orchestra, and peopled with drifts of extras and backroom staff, who at points coalesce into the chorus. You can admire the skill with which all the interlocking elements flow seamlessly around and within one another, while still questioning whether this is the best ambience for a drama that outside the scene set in the Café Momus, is mainly a series of intimate encounters celebrating either friendship or romance, or both. Here simplicity rather than hectic busyness is to be preferred even if that risks a more conventional interpretation. When simplicity returned in Act 3 everything suddenly returned to sharp and compelling dramatic focus.

La Boheme
Adam Gilbert as Rodolfo and Katie Bird as Mimi. Photo: Craig Fuller

That said, the musical side of the evening operates at a very high level. The City of London Sinfonia, under George Jackson’s baton, relishes the tasty orchestral textures, bringing out the many layers of instrumental flavour that Puccini conjures up in the service of the dramatic moment. There is nothing routine in this performance and because Jackson risked creating genuine pianissimos under the cavernous Holland Park tent we got to hear inner parts of the orchestra not usually discernible within the overall wash of sound.

Likewise, the key roles were sung to the highest standard. Katie Bird provides the best interpretation of Mimi that I have heard in years. Too often singers in this role seem to think they have to be fading away in front of our eyes from first appearance; whereas Bird offers genuine, gamine personality right the way through, beautifully structured performances of the key arias, and superb death scene in which, like the orchestra, she takes the volume down until only a heart-catching thread of sound is left. A finale that we have all heard so many times suddenly commanded attention anew.

Opera Holland Park
Adam Gilbert, Barnaby Rea and Ross Ramgobin. Photo: Craig Fuller

She was well matched by Adam Gilbert’s Rodolfo, fully in command of the demands of this role, and singing without strain. Around them were a very convincing band of chums. Marcello, Colline and Schaunard were all believable interpretations, full of warmth, energy, and humour. In particular, Barnaby Rea, as Colline, delivered his farewell to his coat as if his life depended on it; and Ross Ramgobin, conveyed Marcello’s quicksilver changes of mood and demeanour with real credibility. Elizabeth Karani’s Musetta matched him all the way, and dominated Act Two as she always should with both tease and heart.


La Boheme Opera Holland Park
Elizabeth Karani as Musetta. Photo: Craig Fuller

For all the focus on the key principals, this opera is one that rests for its success on collective endeavour in depicting a milieu. The chorus play a big role in making this happen, and as usual Opera Holland Park delivers handsomely in this department, whether we are talking fellow diners at the Café Momus, or street vendors or groups of children. Singers from different organisations came together to provide a cohesive and compelling account of the group action, and here credit really belongs to the director, despite my criticisms of the overall concept, in making such a convincing show of the scenes when the whole stage was full.

Opera Reviews
Elizabeth Karani as Musetta. Photo: Craig Fuller

It remains my review that the director was trying too hard to graft her grand concept onto an opera that so often works best on an intimate, almost chamber-opera scale. However, there is no doubt that the packed house on press night enjoyed a performance that musically offered a great deal more than usual, making us aware once afresh of just how skilfully this opera is put together at every level.

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