La Boheme

Review: English Touring Opera – La Bohème and The Golden Cockerel @ Sheffield Lyceum Theatre

Words: Paul Szabo
Photography: Richard Hubert Smith

Audiences were treated to a double dose of operatic opulence this week as English Touring Opera arrived at the Sheffield Lyceum Theatre with two very different productions.

Monday saw the arrival of La bohème, Puccini’s Parisian-set tale of the doomed relationship between poet Rodolfo and seamstress Mimi, two young bohemians whose love ends in tragedy. Beautifully sung and with sumptuous orchestrations, La Bohème was a very traditionally presented opera and came with all of the tropes of love, heartbreak and tragedy that one would expect from the genre.  Sung in Italian (with English subtitles displayed), the music was indeed beautifully powerful, and the vocal ability of the cast was ultimately incredibly impressive. Luciano Botelho provided a solid central performance as Rodolfo, utilising a fine vocal range; whilst Francesca Chiejina as Mimi offered a strikingly nuanced and sensitive performance.

Where the production didn’t quite hit the mark was in the staging and direction, with the stage itself being either wholly overcrowded by an ensemble cast who came out of nowhere, or seemingly empty. The actors primarily stood in a line making the direction feel two dimensional, there was little by way of movement on stage and a truly awkward moment in an (inexplicably present) hot air balloon basket. Added to that, the cold blue and grey hues of the lighting, uneconomical use of the stage and an incredibly sparse set amounted to a rather lacklustre feel overall.

But the main focus was, of course, what was heard, and it would be as incredibly difficult to pick fault with the performances of the cast or the orchestra as it would be to avoid getting swept up in the power and emotion of the music, especially as the orchestra and the cast swelled together in some soul-piercing crescendos.  Overall, La Bohème was a delight to listen to but could have very much benefitted from more assured and varied staging and direction.

On Tuesday, it was the turn of The Golden Cockerel, an altogether very different opera, which opened with an explanation that its composer, Rimsky-Korsakov, wrote the piece as a response to the reaction to his political leanings. Consequently, there is a very thinly disguised, but rather biting, political satire underpinning the story which is critical of the monarchy, Russian imperialism and the Russo-Japanese War, which is incredibly evident throughout. Based on a poem by Alexander Pushkin, The Golden Cockerel is a rather whimsical affair that tells of King Dodon, who is gifted a golden cockerel which crows to warn of impending danger from a neighbouring state. Finding himself on the battlefield, he is seduced by his foe, the cunning Queen of Shemakha, who agrees to marry him so that she can take his country without a fight. Painting the picture of the king as a childish buffoon, his sons as idiot children and a monarchy that is shambolic, gullible and wrapped in paranoia and blinkered foolishness, Riminsky-Korsakov pulls no punches, thickly laying on his condemnation of the Romanov Empire.

Sung in English, The Golden Cockerel was a much more light-hearted affair than La Bohème, and proved to be quite charming. The production was staged in much better fashion than its predecessor, with a set awash with reds, yellows and greens, a more organised ensemble cast and more visually stimulating direction and set design. The opera was laced with humour and performed quite gleefully by the cast, assisted by an upbeat and whimsical score. Part fairy tale, part satire, there is a jovial feel at first blush, but this subsequently yields to a rather dark undertone not too far below the surface which starts to emerge during the second act. Performed in English, there was a very Gilbert and Sullivan operetta feel to it, which did make the production more accessible, and it is a timely and topical opera.

For me personally, The Golden Cockerel was the more enjoyable of the two, but it is a credit to English Touring Opera that they were able to showcase their talented company with two very contrasting productions, both of which had their own merits.

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