United Kingdom Puccini, La Bohème: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Grand Opera of Belarus, Victor Ploskina (conductor), Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham, 5.2.2013. (RJ)
Mimi: Tatiana Tretiak
Rodolfo: Sergei Frankovsky
Musetta: Inna Rusinovskaya
Marcello: Vladimir Petrov
Alcindoro: Vasily Kovalchiuk
Schaunard: Aleksandr Krasnodubsky
Colline: Ilia Pevzner
Director: George Isakian
Stage Director: Galina Galkovskaya
Designer: Lioudmilla Goncharova
Chorus Master: Nina Lomanovich
The Eastern Europeans have landed on a mission to enrich the cultural life of provincial Britain with their singers and instrumentalists. The Chisinau Opera from Moldova has just started touring Carmen and Tosca under the Ellen Kent banner (www.ellenkent.com), while the Grand Opera of Belarus is taking La Bohème and Madama Butterfly to places in the Kingdom that other opera companies seldom ever reach. The latter have embarked on what seems a particularly gruelling tour, performing at 25 different theatres over two months.
This company, based in Minsk, is the premier opera and ballet company in Belarus and was granted the honorary title “Bolshoi” when the country was part of the Soviet Union. (Only two other theatres are permitted to use this name.) Belarus is a country I have tended to steer clear of – it’s definitely not on my holiday wish list – so I was grateful for the opportunity to hear its artists in action on my home patch.
Taking opera on tour usually calls for compromises, and I lowered my expectations accordingly. Yet I needn’t have worried. The orchestra was thirty strong – more than adequate for most of the theatres in which the company will be appearing – there was a chorus of a dozen-and-a-half, which filled out the café scene in Act 2, and there was a full complement of scene changes, the backdrop to Act 3 of a cityscape overlooked by a freezing winter sky being particularly atmospheric. My only gripe was the positioning of the surtitling screen at ground level rather than above the action, though this did have the advantage of enabling the short-sighted to read the words without recourse to spectacles!
This was a “traditional” production with no gimmicks or nasty surprises. While some of the garret dwellers looked old enough to have abandoned their youthful ideals and found “proper” jobs (in accountancy, perhaps?), there was no shortage of youthful high spirits and banter. It was difficult to single out Rodolfo at first; he was played by the stocky Sergei Frankovsky, and it was only when he started singing that his identity as the hero became clear. The elation at the arrival of Schaunard (sung by Aleksandr Krasnodubsky) with food, wine and firewood for his famished, shivering colleagues was clear to see, and was followed by plenty of high jinks when the landlord arrived for the rent.
The famous scene where the seamstress Mimi knocks at the door and asks Rodolfo for a match for her candle was beautifully enacted. Tatiana Tretiak was a suitably waif-like Mimi, but very smartly turned out in a black minidress and a chic white leather overcoat, 21st century style. The wonderful aria Che gelida manina was sung warmly and tenderly, and feelings of mutual affection soon became manifest.
The Café Momus scene was suitably chaotic, but this was well choreographed chaos which gained shape with the appearance of the flighty Musetta, played by Inna Rusinovskaya (whose appearance kept reminding me of Lesley Garrett), and her sugar-daddy, the bumbling Alcindoro (Vasily Kovalchiuk). But behind the high spirits one sensed pain and loss, as epitomised by Musetta’s former lover Marcello, portrayed with sincerity by the handsome Vladimir Petrov.
There are more heroes deserving of a mention: the orchestra directed by the Ukrainian conductor Victor Ploskina. Their playing revealed all the subtleties of Puccini’s orchestration, not least in Act 3 where the music echoes both the chill of the wintry scene and the bleak prospects of the main protagonists. In the concluding act the air of jollity returned only to be nipped in the bud by Mimi’s death.
It is hard to find fault with this production which has much to commend it as it moves between high spirited jocularity and moments of profound sadness. The ensemble work is first class, and the singing is excellent – and I understand from a colleague that their production of Madama Butterfly is of a similarly high standard. Whether the Grand Opera of Belarus maintains this vibrancy and freshness all the way to Carlisle remains to be seen, but their UK tour has certainly made an impressive start.
With their repertoire of La Bohème and Madama Butterfly the Grand Opera of Belarus will visit theatres in Hull, Shrewsbury, Billingham, Harrogate, Lowestoft, Blackburn, Basildon, Hastings, Worthing, Clacton on Sea, Rhyl, Stockport and Halifax in February; in Swindon, Chesterfield, Yeovil, Dorking, Stafford, Buxton, Darlington, Newcastle and Carlisle in March 2013. For full details see www.amande-concerts.co.uk.