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Ian Waller enjoys a night at the opera, with a production full of love, tragedy and a little comedy too…

My introduction to live opera has been a recent experience. With only two other live productions – Madam Butterfly and Jenufa – under my belt, La Bohème was my first production at the Theatre Royal Bath and, I have to be honest, the first one that actually included a few laughs!

Opera is undoubtedly an acquired taste. From my limited experience, the plots rarely seem that intricate, the acting is often not the strongest and there’s always a fair bit of death and misery. And yet it is still alluring and hugely enjoyable, largely of course down to the stunning musical scores and the incredible vocal talents of the performers. Plus there’s the modern style of many of today’s production, helping to make the performances more approachable and relevant.

April Koyejo-Audiger as Musetta, Phil Wilcox as Alcindoro & Chorus (Photo: Richard Hubert Smith)

This English Touring Opera production of La Bohème is a wonderful case in point. Right from the start and despite their miserable circumstances, the four main characters are full of life and great fun to watch. Sharing a skanky flat in 1830s Paris, the four Bohemians – a painter, a poet, a musician and a philosopher – are simply trying to get by, burning manuscripts to keep warm, sharing precious food and drink, and rejoicing when a little cash earned from an eccentric nobleman gives them the chance of a few drinks and some food out on the town – after all, it is Christmas Eve. It’s a bit like Men Behaving Badly meets Orwell’s Down and Out In Paris and London, with some songs thrown in for good measure.

But of course, this is an opera and two things seem to be ever predictable in opera land – love and tragedy. The love comes in the form of Mimì, a neighbour whose candle has gone out and is need of a light. With his flat mates already on the way to the local bar, Rodolfo (the poet) is only too happy to help and – in no time at all – the two have fallen in love, before leaving arm in arm to joy in the evening’s festivities.

Francesca Chiejina as Mimì

As the plot progresses, the warmth of the principal performers is enchanting, each one with his or her faults and foibles, but also all full of care and friendship for their comrades and lovers. Even the arrival of Musetta, the ex of painter Marcello, in the company of wealthy suitor, quickly results in love rediscovered, along with a little leg pulling and jibes at one another’s expense.

It’s this friendship and humour that bring La Bohème to life, that and the talents of the performers. Luciano Botelho as Rodlofo, Michel de Souza as Marcello and Francesca Chiejina as Mimì lead the proceedings with wonderful skill and charm, along with voices full of depth and emotion. Across the boards, though, the performances are excellent, with Trevor Eliot Bowes at the philosopher Colline, Themba Mvula the musician Schaunard and April Koyejo-Audieger as the temptress Musetta all a joy to watch.

With the Theatre Royal full to capacity for this stunning performance, the first half seemed to fly by, with a quick drink in the cellar bar giving my friend and I a chance to compare notes and agree that we were loving the experience. Certainly the screens on either side of the stage to provide translations of the script helped, while the power of a live orchestra is always a real treat.

Back for the second half and as the action carries on to its inevitably tragic ending, there’s so much to enjoy along the way, from dancing on tables and the power of friendship to tragedy and heartache, all to that amazing musical backdrop.

If you are new to opera, I strongly suggest that you give it a go. What a wonderfully powerful, emotional and thoroughly enjoyable night at the Theatre Royal, with the cast thoroughly deserving the extended applause at the end.