English Touring Opera at Hackney Empire | Review

James Conway’s English Touring Opera, whose motto is “OPERA THAT MOVES” is just embarking on an extensive three-month tour of venues that rarely host opera, ranging from Crediton in the south-west to Millom and Durham in the north, Norwich in the east and Eastbourne on the south-east coast. Puccini’s La Boheme is one of the works being offered, using a superb re-orchestration for 27 players by Bryan Higgins and conducted by the young Greek conductor, Dionysis Grammenos. It is sung in Italian, but with a non-distracting screened simultaneous translation, which is, at times, very witty.

ETO La Boheme - Francesca Chiejina, Luciano Botelho.
ETO La Boheme – Francesca Chiejina, Luciano Botelho.

Designers Florence de Mare and Neil Irish have imaginatively created four simple sets that immediately create the mood as well as being easy for the cast to use, aided by inventive lighting and snow effects by Rory Beaton.

However, what really lifts this production to a very high level is the quality of acting and singing of most of the cast.

The four ‘bohemian’ friends are true singing actors, all being totally believable in role. The Brazilian Luciano Botelho as the poet Rodolpho reveals a gorgeous tenor with barely a sign of strain on the highest notes, Michel de Souza’s rich, steady baritone is the epitome of the painter, Marcello, and Schaunard, the musician, is strongly portrayed by Themba Mvula. The bass, Colline, a philosopher, makes a great deal of his fourth act “Coat” aria, and the minor but important role of the landlord Benoit is sung by Matthew McKinney, portrayed as a much younger and healthier man than is usual.

Mimi, whose tiny hand is certainly frozen in the bleak setting of the first act, is movingly sung by Francesca Chiejina, who gradually builds the role until by the end she has totally succeeded in making us feel involved with her fate and that of Rodolpho. Audiences around England should feel very privileged to be able to hear the quality of musicianship that is evident in this production from these young singers.

Other members of the cast include Robert Lewis as an amusing “Pa’Guignol”, April Koyejo-Audiger as Musetta and a very strong eighteen strong adult chorus, as well as an excellent children’s chorus in Act Two – not only can the young people sing, they can also sing and take direction!

This is a superb, highly enjoyable, moving and involving production of Puccini’s classic opera which I cannot recommend too highly, especially perhaps for those new to opera. English Touring Opera is at Hackney Empire until 5 March – after that the nearest it comes to London is Eastbourne and Cambridge. Just go and see it and judge for yourselves is my advice!

5 Star Rating

Review by John Groves

Puccini’s famous opera La Bohème, about a poet who falls in love with a consumptive seamstress, is a cultural touchstone throughout the world; “a poignant memory in music of love and loss – like a shard of mirror in which one sees one’s youth”, as English Touring Opera’s (ETO’s) Artistic Director James Conway describes it.

Puccini’s La Bohème, Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Golden Cockerel,
Bach’s St John Passion and a film of Ferrandini’s Il Pianto di Maria

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