United Kingdom Puccini: La Bohème: Heritage Opera, Benjamin Cox (electric piano), Haigh Hall, Wigan, Lancashire, 1.11.2012. (MC)
Rodolfo: Nicholas Sales (tenor)
Mimì: Sarah Helsby Hughes (soprano)
Marcello: Thomas Eaglen (baritone)
Musetta: Lorna James (soprano)
Schaunard: Matthew Kellett (baritone)
Colline: Matthew J. Palmer (baritone)
Benoît & Alcindoro: Martin Cassell (bass)
Waitress: Eleanor Strutt (soprano)
Director: Sarah Helsby Hughes
Set design/construction: David Berry
Stage Manager: Charlie Mortimer
Production assistant: Eleanor Strutt
Accompanist: Benjamin Cox
Not surprisingly the handkerchiefs were out in force at Haigh Hall, Wigan for one of the most powerful love stories in all opera. Set in a freezing garret a missing key leads to an unintentional meeting of cold hands. For their autumn production Heritage Opera had chosen Puccini’s irresistible four act opera La Bohème in anEnglish translation of by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa’s Italian librettos based on Scènes de la vie de bohème (pub 1851) by Henri Murger. This heartbreaking romance set around 1830 in the student’s quarter of Paris has an enduring popularity with audiences.
Earlier this year I saw the Gale Edwards’s production of La bohème for Australian Opera starring Takesha Meshé Kizart as Mimi and Ji-Min Park as Rodolfo. Set in 1920s Weimar Germany the staging was so sumptuous and vibrantly coloured it failed to depict the character of impoverished young bohemians trying to survive through a freezing winter. Sparsely furnished and starkly functional the cleverly designed Heritage Opera set was ideal for depicting the poverty stricken Parisian idealists in their garret in the 1830s. I liked the way the small details on the set and clothing cumulatively add to the convincing portrayal of their destitute existence. However, I did notice that a modern watch was left on a wrist but surely that poverty-stricken lot would have been straight down to the nearest 19thcentury equivalent of Cash Converters to pawn it.
With casting that seemed ideal soprano Sarah Helsby Hughes impressed as Mimi the consumptive seamstress. With vivid and eloquent tones she was able to soar up impressively to the climaxes in her celebrated aria ‘Yes, they call me Mimì’ (Sì, mi chiamano Mimì). Equally convincing was the talented soprano’s revealing of Mimi’s vulnerable and melancholic side to her character. I even noticed a tear or two running down Mimi’s cheek. Nicholas Sales as Rodolfo the budding poet was well suited to the role with his wholehearted acting as well received as ever. Noticeable too was the pleasing phrasing and impeccable diction that Sales used to significant effect. Rodolfo’s famous aria ‘What a frozen little hand’ (Che gelida manina) was skilfully rendered displaying his striking bright lyric tenor. Rodolfo and Mimì’s beautiful duet ‘Oh lovely girl’ (O soave fanciulla) was given a meltingly heartfelt performance and was a highlight of the evening. Soprano Lorna James threw her heart and soul into the part of singer Musetta. Improving all the time, James has a power packed projection and easily turned on her seductive charms. I was delighted with Musetta’s waltz ‘When I am walking’ (Quando men vo) given a forceful performance by the enthusiastic soprano. This was the first time I had seen baritone Matthew Kellett, a new recruit for the company who excelled in the role of the musician Schaunard. With a fine stage presence the steely toned Kellet was in imposing voice delivering his lines with real confidence. Thomas Eaglen as the painter Marcello has became a reliable and popular cast member. The baritone’s smooth dark timbered voice projected effortlessly through the hall. Baritone Matthew Palmer offered fine support, bass Martin Cassell made a promising debut for the company and accompanist Benjamin Cox proved to be well up to the demanding task. In act 4 extremely well choreographed was the energetic and dangerous looking frolicking that ended up in a mock sword fight. At the conclusion of the opera many a tear will have been shed in the audience as Nicholas Sales and Sarah Helsby Hughes gave such a deeply moving portrayal of Mimi’s death scene.
With La Bohème Heritage Opera provided many treasurable moments and maintained their high standard of performance.