Puccini, Illica, Giocosa
Palace Theatre, Manchester
21 January 2020: 2hr 15min
Ellen Kent has been bringing colourful, accessible, traditional-style productions of popular opera to us for 27 years now, and this new presentation of Puccini’s La Boheme has not broken the mould – there are children, there’s an animal performer and it’s essentially a mid-European company production with a few guest soloists.
But hold: what’s this outfit called "Senbla" now getting the credit? It’s an established source of middle-brow shows run by Ollie Rosenblatt, son of Ian Rosenblatt, who founded the Rosenblatt Recitals at London’s Wigmore Hall 20 years ago.
The first of an "Opera Festival" tour, presenting Ellen Kent’s productions in partnership with her, opened at the Palace in Manchester last night and will bestride the country in one and two-night stands until Easter.
This La Boheme, with design by Ukraine’s Nadia Svets, has some new and somewhat younger singers in the main roles. The small chorus is as hard-working as ever, the small orchestra is made up of members of Ukrainian and Moldovan ensembles, and the children are from Stagecoach Theatre Arts in Salford and Didsbury. Hector the dog appeared last night as Musetta’s pooch, wearing a nice little tutu – first time I’ve seen a dog on stage in drag.
There are all sorts of things you could pick away at to criticise this production. I’ve said before that it’s a bit odd to see the Eiffel Tower in the backdrop to indicate Paris when we’re supposed to be in 1830 and it hadn’t been built yet, but it tells the story as its creators envisaged it should be told. Musically it doesn’t stand comparison with our well-subsidised major opera companies, but Vitalii Cebotari as Schaunard and Vadim Cernovettky as Colline are presumably members of a new generation of singers coming to the fore in Ukraine and/or Moldova and welcome (particularly Cebotari). Lurie Gisca is, as always, dependable as Marcello, and Alyona Kistenyova (Mimí) and Maria Tonina (Musetta) deliver some power in the two main female roles.
But the main thing is that this show will have brought new people to experience opera, which can’t be bad, and on the evidence of last night they were both entertained and moved by it.