What a difference a week makes – and not just in politics. After a decidedly lacklustre Siege of Calais seven days earlier, English Touring Opera achieved a glorious return to form on Saturday evening in Hackney with a scintillating performance of La bohème. In a production that scores highly in virtually every department, ETO’s treatment of Puccini’s venerable, much-loved crowd-pleaser demonstrates how it is possible to conjure up magic from slender resources.

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Directed by James Conway (is he ever allowed a rest?), the production – in period and entirely conventional – gives space for the cast to focus on the development of their relationships as the narrative transitions from comedy to tragedy. Florence de Maré’s sparse set is undoubtedly designed with one eye on the twin constraints of budget and the need to accommodate stages of varying sizes on the company’s travels around the UK. Consequently, all we get is a large glass wall, which is used in varying degrees of opacity and tilt; a tall pipe, doubling as a fire and a fairground attraction; a few pieces of Spartan furniture; and, a generous sprinkling of grime. The whole is very much greater than the sum of its parts. With the aid of Mark Howland’s cold, grim lighting, the grinding poverty of the protagonists’ daily lives is ever-present, and their determination to eke out some jollity from their impoverished existence is imbued with a relentless desperation. Even the frolicking at Café Momus is little more than a momentary escape to somewhere marginally less depressing than home. Other concessions to the demands of space include confining the usually peripatetic toy-seller, Parpignol to a puppet booth under the name of Pa’Guignol. This eliminates the need to have a horde of children following him around the stage, but also has the effect of making Act 2 more static than usual.

The six principals achieve a level of vocal and dramatic performance that is remarkably high, both individually and as an ensemble.

With absolutely no disrespect to his excellent fellow cast members, the young English tenor David Butt Philip is quite simply in a league of his own as Rodolfo. I heard him in this role nearly five months ago, in the much larger surroundings of the Coliseum, and was mightily impressed with what struck me then as a voice destined for stardom. Here, in the more intimate setting of the Hackney Empire, he was even more exciting. With a beautifully warm, almost baritonal, middle voice, and an upper register that expands effortlessly with near limitless squillo (the trumpet-like ring possessed by the best Italian tenors), listening to him was an almost physical experience. ‘Soaring’ is one of the hoary old clichés often used when trying to describe a voice, but here it is entirely apt. Every high-lying phrase soared with such power that it would be easy to fear for the long term vocal health of such a young singer were it not for how absurdly easy it all seems for him. He now needs to develop a wider palette of colours and ensure that he keeps the sobs and scoops under control, both of which will undoubtedly come with time and experience. His easy-going stage persona and naturalistic acting are icing on the cake.

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As his Mimi, the Russian soprano, Ilona Domnich, was likeable, and managed to avoid the pitfall of being too meek and drippy. The first two acts did not see her at her best. The vocal production was at times unsteady on an uneven airflow. Ends of phrases tended to suffer, and there were some pitch issues. Nerves, perhaps, because in the second half, as Mimi completes her descent into tragedy, these problems largely righted themselves. Far more roundness in the sound allowed the beauty of her soft-grained lyric soprano to come to the fore. If she can address the tendency of the sound to harden at full volume, and some acid vowel sounds in the middle register, it is essentially a lovely voice. This Mimi has a strong personality, which renders her lacerating grief on overhearing Rodolfo’s third act commentary on her failing health all the more overwhelming. Standing upstage, hunched over, her mouth wide open with shock and terror, it was probably the most devastating moment of the evening.

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The striking, flame-haired Musetta of Sky Ingram, and Grant Doyle’s hearty, idealistic Marcello, are a feisty couple, their robust relationship standing out in stark contrast to the doomed, fragile love of Mimi and Rodolfo. Ms Ingram depicts Musetta as a determined woman, less flighty than usual. Her appearance in riding breeches in the final act hints at a strength of character that complements her kindness. Her showpiece aria, “Quando m’en vo” was somewhat anonymous, and it felt as though she was not entirely happy with the tempo. However, in the ensuing ensemble and her Act 3 domestic with Marcello her clean, steely soprano bloomed nicely. Doyle’s singing as bluff and honest Marcello (although overly grey for a student) was a vast improvement on his Donzetti the previous week. His gravelly baritone was firm and resonant, and he clearly feels at home in this music. The top of the voice tends towards throatiness, but that did not detract from a highly satisfying performance.

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The South African baritone, Njabulo Madlala is a bigger, darker voiced Schaunard than is usually encountered in this role. He is also a dramatically darker, more brooding presence than usual. His falsetto appropriation of the line “Vo’ la tromba il cavallin”, usually sung by a child, verged on the sinister. Matthew Stiff, gave a loveable, quirky and impeccably-sung Colline. The only real complaint was that the Act 4 farewell to his soon-to-be-pawned coat, ‘Vecchia zimarra, senti” was taken at such a lick that it lacked the required gravitas and prevented his beautiful bass voice from being heard to its fullest advantage.

There were excellent cameos from Adam Player as the landlord, Benoît, and from Andrew Glover, as Musetta’s bemused sugar-daddy, Alcindoro. Player, in particular, stole the scene in his witless Act 1 confrontation with his tenants.

From the opening bars, Michael Rosewell’s empathy with this music was self-evident. With the exception of a couple of issues of tempo (see above) he provided sympathetic support for his singers, and drew opulent sounds all evening from the orchestra. It would be remiss to conclude without a nod of appreciation in the direction of the excellent children’s  chorus from St Mary’s and St John’s CE School, who did so much to enliven Act 2.

It is always gratifying to see a small company punching above its weight, and, with this production of Puccini’s masterpiece, ETO transcends by a considerable margin the limitations of the resources available to it. It is as rewarding an evening in the company of this opera as I have spent in any of the larger, more richly endowed houses.

4.5 stars

Steve Silverman

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