Puccini: La boheme

British Youth Opera

Peacock Theatre, London, 8 September 2010 4 stars

BohemeFirst things first: this is an excellent show. La Boheme is an opera all about the loves and tribulations of young people, and young people is whatBritish Youth Opera have in abundance: no wonder then that it is the single most-performed opera in BYO's 23 year history to date. But the company have not tackled the work since 1998: so few in the full house at the Peacock Theatre on opening night will have had comparisons to make with previous productions.

If they had been able to make such comparisons I think they would have noted the relentless rise in production values, in orchestral preparation and in operatic teamwork that go to make their 2010 Boheme a hugely enjoyable, rewarding evening. Full marks then to director Stephen Barlow and to his designer Yannis Thavoris who have created a Boheme that looks attractive, moves well and, above all, simply works. There are of course a few wrinkles and I shall come to them later on, along with my thoughts on the solo roles, but I emerged from this, the latest of my many encounters with Puccini's 1896 masterpiece, with a warm heart.

The flat, wide stage of the Peacock Theatre does not give much by way of assistance to a production team, especially for the section of the audience sitting in the stalls. So it is greatly to BYO's credit that the stage looked attractive and well-designed from the outset and the act two Café Momus in particular worked like clockwork.  A vivid red canvas awning told us where the scene was set, suspended glass doors were opened and closed, waiters appeared alongside pavement tables and disappeared again.  The twelve members of Southend Boys' and Girls' choirs threaded their way neatly between the usual galere of street vendors, townsfolk, entertainers played by BYO's full chorus – all twenty-eight of them, cleverly positioned to allow unimpeded movement but to suggest a gay and busy Parisian street scene on Christmas Eve. It all added up to some very effective Personenregie, and it helped to keep the show constantly on the move.

The second, almost more important factor that kept the show moving was the highly secure, idiomatic playing of the Southbank Sinfonia under BYO's music director, Peter Robinson. Reduced orchestral forces almost always result in a leaner, less cushioned sound but on this occasion it was hard to hear that much was missing: the strings in particular had real, Italianate bloom to them and ensemble precision hardly faltered at any stage. Robinson set and maintained a lively pace but coordination between stage and pit was excellent, and his cast did exactly what he was asking of them. I liked his reading very much: this version of verismo was not the gritty or sordid realism of several productions I have seen in the past decade, but rather a 'straight', warm reading of the period Bohemian life evoked – and somewhat romanticised – by Murger in his scenes de la vie boheme. There were nods to present-day habits here and there: Mimi sought a light in Act One not for her candle but for a cigarette, and she and Rodolfo went straight to bed at the end of the act, rather than wandering offstage and becoming distant voices as normally happens, but touches like this were light and deft and nicely restrained. One could argue with Barlow's penchant for flying the furniture in and out: Rodolfo's bed ascends into the flies at the ends of Acts One and Four, and Musetta's café table does the same for her to deliver quando men' vo soletta per la via in Act Two. This is verismo with a pantomime touch at times! But the cast played well within the conventions they were set by the director, and kept a close eye on their conductor – in my book this all added up to a well-controlled, nicely balanced performance.

The scene is set in La Boheme by the quartet of male principals – Rodolfo, Marcello, Colline and Schaunard – who have to create, in the conversational phrases that Puccini gives them, a sense of community, a group of friends who will take Mimi to their collective heart and be with her at her death. The BYO bohemians worked well together – their horseplay was gentle, their ability to etch strong personalities not yet fully formed, but Matthew Sprange as Schaunard and Benjamin Cahn as Colline both sang strongly and with conviction, Cahn lacking only the darker Heft that an older bass can bring to the role. A notch above them in terms of warm tone, sheer musicality and vocal quality was the young Japanese baritone Koji Terada as Marcello. He had a terrific sing all evening, impressing me with his phrasing, breath control and often beautiful sound. A singer to watch.

Completing the quartet is the hero of the work, Rodolfo. John Pierce is a young Welsh tenor also to watch, with major prizes behind him and the chance to represent Wales in Cardiff Singer of the Year 2011. I have heard him in recital and the voice is big, raw and exciting. So it was puzzling on Saturday to hear Pierce turn in a nicely controlled, always idiomatic account of the role but a Rodolfo who often sounded underpowered, not only in his solo line but also in the ensemble passages. His soft singing was often beautiful and there may have been an element of Pierce deliberately trying to avoid the 'can belto' style of the second-rate tenor: but if so, he miscalculated the dynamic range and expression that the role demands. Che gelida manina was roundly applauded and Pierce loosened up somewhat as the evening progressed, but on opening night he did not really nail the role. What he has to produce is the big, thrilling 'ring' that audiences crave from Rodolfo: he has the chance to do so in the two subsequent performances.

By contrast his Mimi, Susana Gaspar, gave us a beautiful account of one of opera's most touching female creations. Gaspar has the physique du role, never sang above herself, phrased everything she sang with light and shade and turned in a nuanced performance that belied her young age. Puccini helps her of course, with every trick in the orchestral book, but Gaspar seized her moment and took the audience with her: by Act Four her persona looked and felt genuinely weak and ill, and we cared intensely for her fate. This was an impressive creation.

A word finally for the Musetta of Anna Patalong – she certainly looked the part and she carried off her antics in Act Two with real panache, although I felt the voice was a little hard and undernourished at times in the early stages. However I always judge a Musetta by the person she turns into by Act Four, and here Patalong did not disappoint: she had grown up, her voice had a warm, dramatic quality to it and she became believable as the grieving friend whose shallow past is suddenly thrown into sharp relief. So all in all, Patalong turned in a good performance: in keeping with the high overall standard of the BYO ensemble.

This was a distinct level up from the two Rossini one-acters I heard BYO perform last year – there is a particular idiom to La Boheme and the large forces involved really went for it. The Italians have a name for what is required: ambientismo, the attempt by writers of verismo opera to evoke the milieu through the music, to actually compose the décor of the piece into the score. La Boheme has this quality in abundance but is not straightforward to perform: it requires scrupulous musical preparation and a real understanding of what the work is all about. At times, I felt to my delight, BYO were in the idiom and singing and playing almost above themselves at their present level of development. So overall, a really fine achievement.

By Mike Reynolds