United Kingdom Puccini, La bohème: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Northern Ireland Opera / Rebecca Lang (conductor). Carlisle Memorial Church, Belfast, 18.9.2021. (RB)
Director – Cameron Menzies
Set designer – Claire Morrissey
Costume designer – Diana Ennis
Lighting designer – Kevin Treacy
Choreographer – Jennifer Rooney
Rodolfo – Noah Stewart
Mimì – Gemma Summerfield
Marcello – Yuriy Yurchuk
Musetta – Emma Morwood
Benoît/Alcindoro – Graeme Danby
Schaunard – Aaron O’Hare
Colline – Edmund Danon
Parpignol – Owen Lucas
Cameron Menzies joined Northern Ireland Opera as Artistic Director in February this year midway through the Covid pandemic. This was his first production in front of a live audience. Due to Covid restrictions and the need for social distancing the audience was restricted to 90 people.
The venue for the production was Carlisle Memorial Church in Belfast City Centre which has now fallen into a state of disrepair. The main stage consisted of raised rectangular walkways which framed the orchestral pit underneath. One of the Church’s Gothic arches formed an impressive eye-catching backdrop to the action. The action was set in the 1920s and the period costumes were dowdy and plain for the most part, reflecting the straightened financial position of the bohemians. Musetta’s glamorous green and yellow outfit in Act II provided a striking contrast. The chorus were necessarily restricted in numbers in the crowd scene at the start of Act II but they succeeded in creating a boisterous convivial atmosphere. Two Pierrot clowns made a strong impression with their high jinks and frivolities.
The balance of sound was not quite right at the start of the production and some of the main characters struggled to project above the orchestra. This may have been due to the acoustic in the church, the positioning of the orchestra and the Covid restrictions. However, the singers and orchestral players adjusted well as the production progressed and succeeded in striking a much better balance of sound. American tenor, Noah Stewart, gave a dramatically convincing portrayal of the love-struck Rodolfo. His singing was certainly strong and passionate in some of the big set piece numbers such as Act I’s ‘Che gelida manina’ although the tone occasionally sounded forced and the vocal line lacked polish. British soprano Gemma Summerfield gave an assured performance in the role of Mimì perfectly capturing the alluring and frail qualities of the character in equal measure. She gave a fine account of Puccini’s big set piece numbers. I particularly loved her performance of ‘Si, mi chiamano Mimì’ with its beautifully sustained lines and radiant sound.
Belfast soprano, Emma Morwood, captured the flighty and coquettish Musetta to perfection. She gave a fine performance of Musetta’s famous waltz song from Act II although I would have liked a little more freedom and flexibility in the vocal line. Ukrainian baritone, Yuriy Yurchuk, gave a spirited performance bringing the ardent Marcello winningly to life. He rose magnificently above the orchestra in his vocal entry towards the end of Act II. The rest of the performers all acquitted themselves well in their respective roles.
Rebecca Lang and her reduced band of instrumentalists did an excellent job bringing Puccini’s wonderful score to life. Lang’s tempi seemed spot on to me and I was struck by her eye to detail. The shifting moods of the music were captured well and the emotional set piece numbers were powerful without being overly sentimental.
It is great to see Northern Ireland opera back giving live performances once again. This performance was inevitably hampered to some extent by Covid restrictions but all the performers did a magnificent job rising to the challenge and overcoming these restrictions. We will hopefully see them back again very soon at the Grand Opera House in Belfast.