Opera Bohemia: La Bohème

11 Apr 2011 in Highland, Music, Showcase

Strathpeffer Spa Pavilion, 8 April 2011

IT IS but a few months since Scottish Opera revived their somewhat imaginative production of La Bohème with all the trimmings of this Puccini pot boiler, so there was a little apprehension about going to another version, this time performed by an opera company established especially for the show by seven young Scottish singers touring in a box van with a couple of musicians playing a violin and a piano, and an electronic one at that. The omens were not good, but Rule One is to approach everything with an open mind.

The Opera Bohemia company

The Opera Bohemia company

The set, designed and built by Magnus Popplewell, was suitably ramshackle and scruffy, and bore as much resemblance to a garden shed as to a students’ garret in the Latin Quarter of 19th century Paris. But it worked, except for the superfluous window that allowed the audience to see everyone approaching the only door onto the set. Moving the action to the Café Momus and to the Barrière D’Enfer was but a simple matter of hanging reversible flats onto the basic framework and adding a few props. Neat and effective.
The action starts with the writer Rodolpho and the painter Marcello, played by Alistair Digges and Douglas Nairne, trying to warm up their room by burning Rodolpho’s unfinished play in the stove. They are joined by Toby Hunt as the philosopher Colline, and just as the three are resigned to a cold and hungry Christmas, the fourth member of the group, Schaunard the music teacher, played by Christopher Nairne, arrives with money and a basket of food and wine.

Director John Wilkie had worked out a very good sequence of student behaviour for the quartet, an exemplary display of careless abandon that made the most of four very fine young voices. Any remaining preconceptions had been shot down in flames and I sat back to enjoy what was a very well performed and directed production.

Catriona Clark as the consumptive seamstress Mimi maintained operatic tradition by appearing disgustingly healthy as she sang and played the role with considered style and a fine soprano voice. From the Café Momus scene onwards we were rewarded by the singing of Prudence Sanders as Musetta, described by the librettists Illica and Giacosa as a ‘grisette’, a word that seems to imply so much more than ‘a working class young French woman’.

Her ‘Sono andati’ was spot on, but when everyone else was costumed as if in the 19th century, why was Musetta in a dress more suitable to a 1950s American High School Prom? Filling the roles of Benoit the landlord (with a bit of a nod to Rigsby of Rising Damp) and Musetta’s sugar daddy Alcindoro was the RSAMD undergraduate Nicholas Cowie, a student of the distinguished Scots singer Alan Watt.

Of course, with limited resources and no chorus, some of the opera had to be swept under the musical carpet, but violinist Amira Bedrush-McDonald and keyboard player Laura Baxter provided a precise and unintrusive accompaniment which balanced well with the singers on the stage. It did not take the ear long to adapt to the sound.
Reading between the lines in the biographies, it is possible to detect the gestation of Opera Bohemia. The inspirational effect of the local amateur operatic society in Kirkcaldy, Fife Opera, is obvious, encouraging their young members to take the step to study at RSAMD in Glasgow (soon to be rebranded as The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland) and equally at the Guildhall in London where other friendships were cemented.

However, the world of classical singing is very competitive and the network of music colleges are producing a steady stream of graduates of a consistently high standard. The amount of work available to them is limited and it must be terribly frustrating for fine young singers trying to make a living in occasional cover roles and concert performances with local choral societies.
So all credit to this enterprising group of young artists for creating their own market. Scottish Opera may have claimed that their La Bohème breathed new life into an old favourite, but Opera Bohemia have proved that there is life in the old dog yet. Basic, perhaps; D-I-Y, certainly; but it was thoroughly enjoyable. Roll on Lucia di Lammermuir in the autumn.

© James Munro, 2011