Tuesday, 18 December 2018

Review: Cut-down opera stands tall

SURPRISINGLY little is sacrificed when a large work is performed in a cut-down version,

SURPRISINGLY little is sacrificed when a large work is performed in a cut-down version, especially when it comes to Bach.

But one might still recoil at the thought of full-scale opera reduced to threadbare resources — a keyboard, a handful of singers, a tiny stage and a few basic props.

But for those attending Saturday’s Merry Opera Company production of La Boheme at the Kenton, whether initiates or seasoned opera-goers, such doubts were soon dispelled.

The performance was as emotionally effective as any at Covent Garden, while the direction, singing and keyboard “orchestra” were wholly convincing, despite the absence of big-stage opulence and pit musicians.

Stage director/ librettist Christopher Cowell must be applauded for a challenge brilliantly met — and who could fail to admire music director Harry Sever, who not only reproduced the score on the electronic piano but played it entirely from memory?

In under two hours, Puccini transports us from the boisterousness of a shared student attic to Mimi’s untimely death in the same space. This he achieves musically using a lavish palette of themes representing the main characters’ personalities and destinies. Tragedy and comedy are never far apart.

In the opening scene great fun was had with the landlord, played amusingly by Matthew Quirk. Meanwhile, tenor Michael Bradley looked entirely at home as the besotted Rodolfo and was ideally paired with Andrea Tweedale (Mimi), the object of his devotion.

Both had superb voices, a wide spectrum of vocal colour and the capacity to project — as evidenced by the opening love duet, a benchmark for all that followed.

They were ably supported by the brilliant Tanya Hurst (Musetta), who sang extrovertly, at times bubbling with comic energy, and Fleur de Bray (Phémie), the bohemian. Both excelled in the farcically choreographed café scene where, at its climax, as many as six voice parts were melded ingeniously together.

Thomas Humphrey (Marcello) was an effective foil to Rodolfo, producing fine singing in both studio and winter scenes.

In the latter, Mimi, desperate to find Rodolfo, listens covertly to the friends’ bitter exchange about her worsening condition and hears Rodolfo finally blurt out that he loves her.

Her answer — the aria “I wish you well” — was beautifully sung, and the final duet between her and Rodolfo was heart-rendingly poignant.

The final, highly-charged death scene elicited prolonged applause from a delighted audience.

Trevor Howell

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