Oxford Opera’s Pitch-Perfect Boheme
La Bohème, Oxford Playhouse, Oxford
Large and enthusiastic audiences at the Playhouse last weekend enjoyed three performances of an excellent production of one of the great staples of the repertoire, Puccini’s La bohème, from the new(ish) Oxford Opera Company.
This commendable enterprise aims to bring us the stars, or at least the rising stars, of the international stage, while creating opportunities for local schoolchildren and students to work alongside them.
Building on its success with another Puccini favourite Tosca in 2018 and last year’s acclaimed production – just for one night – of Georges Bizet’s Carmen, this mightily impressive outfit delivered a polished, perceptive and pitch-perfect production.
Powered along by Oxford Chamber Orchestra, under conductor Neil Farrow, the evening of tears and not a little laughter was a credit to the company’s founder and artistic director, the bass-baritone Stuart Pendred, and the fine team he has gathered around him.
Pendred shone vocally, and as a gifted actor, in the show’s two comic cameo roles. First, we saw him as the Bohemians’ elderly landlord Benoît, who is ragged into revealing details of his alleged womanising and then treated with faux outrage by the lads on account of it, as a convenient excuse for throwing him out without his rent. Shortly after, he was Alcindoro, the equally put-upon banker and general dogsbody to the flighty Musetta.
This self-possessed minx was splendidly presented by Davidona Pittock, with her famously vampish trademark aria ‘Quando me’n vo’, proving a highlight of the show, as it usually is.
For once in this production, which is far from being always the case, the quartet of likely lads in joint occupation of the freezing Parisian garret were all visibly young enough to be tyros in the various trades they represent. This lent an appropriate juvenile larkiness to their antics together, and an engaging naivety to their involvement – well, two of them at least – in affairs of the heart .
The poet Rodolfo was memorably presented by the star-to-be (if not already) Sam Furness. a considerable ‘catch’ for this production, as was the New Zealand-born Samoan soprano Marlena Devoe as Mimi.
Their peerless Act I arias of introduction, and the great love duet that follows, were flawlessly and affectingly delivered. A winning extra dimension to the production, under director Paul Carr, arose from the conceit of showing us the opera as if in preparation for the filming of it, with the singers falling for each other as they rehearsed, scores in hand.
Huw Montague Rendall as the painter Marcello (on-off lover of Musetta), fellow baritone Dominic Bowe as musician Shaunard and bass Samuel Lom as the philosopher Colline showed a winning rapport each for the others, while seizing their time in the spotlight when it was offered. This included, in the case of the last, his plangent tribute to his departing overcoat amid the surrounding gloom of Mimi’s death. 4/5
Review: La Boheme – Oxford Opera Company is already proving to be a real asset to the city.
Following an outstandingly successful Carmen last year, Oxford Opera Company headed back to the Oxford Playhouse at the weekend for four performances of another opera classic, Puccini’s La Boheme, including a special ‘mini-opera’ performance for families.
Founder Stuart Pendred is on a mission to bring top quality professional opera to Oxford while engaging closely with the local community, putting on productions that are accessible both to regular opera-goers and those who may be discovering it for the first time. This latest production ticks all those boxes.
The minimalist, unfussy set allows the story to unfold with exceptional clarity, and there was a finely-drawn contrast between the good-natured joshing among the impoverished students at the beginning and the tender but tragically short-lived romance between Mimi and Rodolfo.
Marlena Devoe, an award-winning soprano from New Zealand, was utterly captivating as Mimi, her voice effortlessly strong, sweet and expressive, and she had exactly the right air of appealing vulnerability. She was well matched by tenor Sam Furness, making his role debut as Rodolfo, and the pair interacted with great sensitivity and warmth, caressing those sumptuous Puccini harmonies with evident relish.
Huw Montague Rendall and Davidona Pittock impressed as the spirited, argumentative Marcello and Musetta, and there were some fine performances from Samuel Lom (Colline), Dominic Bowe (Shaunard) and Stuart Pendred (Benoit and Alcindoro).
The children’s chorus was a delight, and it is a wonderful hallmark of this company that it is committed to introducing local young people to the world of opera. Admittedly some of the singing entries could have been a bit crisper, but that is a minor quibble; it was heart-warming to see the obvious enthusiasm of these young performers.The Oxford Chamber Orchestra played with energy and conviction under the direction of Neil Farrow.
This is the second production I have seen by the Oxford Opera Company which, only two years from its formation, is already proving to be a real asset to the city. I look forward to seeing what they come up with next.