Opera review: La Bohème, Perth Concert Hall

OK, IT wasn’t quite Covent Garden – as some in the audience remarked. But English Touring Opera’s warm, generous La bohème, which kicked off this year’s Perth Festival of the Arts in superb style, made a great virtue of its limitations.

La Bohème

Perth Concert Hall

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Rating: * * * *

With a reduced orchestra – just 25 players – and a small-scale portable set designed specifically for touring (in fact, Perth was ETO’s sole foray north of the Border in a UK-wide tour), it felt a bit like a chamber version of what can end up being a self-indulgent wallow-fest of an opera. But that only served to bring into sharp focus the work’s touching mix of youthful eagerness and vulnerability, in its tale of love and loss amongst youngsters in a Parisian garret, making the production all the more moving as a result.

The whole show felt fresh and fleet-footed, propelled along by Michael Roswell’s spirited conducting in the pit, with lines elegantly sculpted and textures beautifully balanced, yet eloquently charting Puccini’s ever-changing moods as it moved briskly from one scene to the next. He had a fine quartet of singers for his central foursome, too. David Butt Philip and Nicholas Lester were well matched as garret chums Rodolfo and Marcello, sparking off each other in their exchanges about love and art, although Butt Philip had the edge with his gloriously bright, lyrical tenor and laser-precise diction. Ilona Domnich made a rather hearty Mimì, although she charted her character’s descent into consumption convincingly, after the interval suddenly shedding the rather intense vibrato that had marked out her singing in the first half. And Sky Ingram had a ball as the flirty Musetta, yet managed to make her both seductive and needy. Even local children from Perth’s Oakbank School made a lively and thoroughly convincing appearance in Act II, expertly drilled by Stephen Clay.

With its hot-air balloon basket and oversized test tube, Florence de Maré’s set was a little baffling but nonetheless evocative in its faded decadence. But it was director James Conway’s little touches that really brought things alive – the painting of a backwards “Momus” on a mirrored wall to place us immediately in the grimy Parisian bar; Mimí’s friends remaining unobtrusively on stage for her death-bed scene, as if bearing witness. And, most of all, in the second-by-second interactions between characters. In daring to be low-key, he brought the opera’s underlying fragility into powerfully poignant focus.