Sunday, August 21, 2022

Fairfield Halls, London Borough of Croydon

Guest Reviewer, Peter Reed

Filling a post-lockdown relaxation in 2020, English National Opera mounted a socially-distanced drive-in staging of La bohème in a car-park at Alexandra Palace in north London. This time it took Puccini south, not the staging but a concert performance, with all the seats at £5 each. And as far as access to the arts is concerned, it’s fair to say that the audience certainly got its money’s-worth in a rendition that gripped from the start and set the bar high for Croydon as next year’s London Borough of Culture.

Four of the leads had sung in ENO’s revival of the opera in January this year, and it showed in the natural flow of singing and acting, and although the latter was inevitably restricted it was enough to engage. Sinéad Campbell-Wallace may present a rather robust Mimì and was very much the lead in hitting it off with Rodolfo in Act I, but she really got the measure of the role in Act III, her veiled voice drawing some of the sweetness from her sumptuous lyric soprano when she can’t keep denying the fact that her number is up. Again she was partnered by David Junghoon Kim as Rodolfo, his tenor even more intense and virile than I recall, his singing saturated with ardour; all you need for one of opera’s more impetuous lovers. He was well-matched by Charles Rice’s Marcello, superb in his Act III telling-it-straight duo with Rodolfo, and just as involving in his rough-and-tumble love-affair with Musetta, impressively performed by Alexandra Oomens. Her voice breathes personality, charm and technique, all of them delightfully deployed in her Café Momus moment. William Thomas and Alex Otterburn completed the quartet of young artists as Colline and Schaunard, both in great voice and leavening the surge of romantic entanglements. Simon Butteris reprised his baleful Benoit and duped Alcindoro in fine style.

Once again ENO’s music director Martyn Brabbins showed how to explain through conducting. Puccini’s carefully layered score, for all its familiarity, sounded fresh and completely in sync with mood, drama, and Amanda Holden’s marvellous translation, played with flair and understanding by the ENO Orchestra.