The annual Iford Festival Opera is undoubtedly my favourite way to experience this most emotive art form. Located in the rambling grounds of Iford Manor in Bradford-on-Avon, just outside Bath, the Grade II listed Harold Peto garden makes for a stunning picnic venue ahead of the performance. Gates open early so there’s ample time to find a nice dining spot, with the option to bring your own picnic or order one ahead (a reasonable £30 for three courses).
An auditorium with just ninety seats meanwhile ensures that opera at Iford is the last word if you’re looking for intimacy, atmosphere and exclusivity. Granted, tickets don’t come cheap (from £121), but when you consider the quality of each production, that the cast are always carefully selected professionals at the top of their game, and that the limited number of seats simply doesn’t allow for lower prices, it’s worth every penny.
Anthony Flaum as Rodolfo
Having not staged a production of Puccini’s La bohème
in over twenty years, it was a natural opera for Iford Arts to revisit, so Creative Director Judy Eglington tells me, and the in-the-round staging inside the miniature Italianate cloister of the Peto Garden conjured up all the romance of Bohemian 19th century Paris that I’d been hoping for. With clever lighting by Christopher Nairne (who worked on last year’s acclaimed production of Macbeth
), flamboyant costumes and just a few props, such as some unfinished canvases, Art Nouveau cornicing and a set of street lights, designer Eleanor Wdowskiare transports us to the city of love and the lives of an ambitious group of young artists who plan on capturing the world’s attention, even if the determination takes them to the brink of homelessness and starvation.
The acoustics can prove challenging inside the cloister due to the sheer shortage of space for the scaled down CHROMA orchestra, but conductor and musical director of Iford Festival Opera Oliver Gooch is an old hand at getting the balance just right and successfully marries Puccini’s evocative score with some serious vocal prowess from the cast. The garret setting of Act I certainly lends itself well to this venue and gives the audience the chance to be a fly on the wall like never before as the tale of young love, friendship and impetuosity unfolds.
It’s Christmas Eve and Anthony Flaum is our hero Rodolfo, a young poet who is easily distracted by the caddish three friends with whom he shares the garret; the wayward painter Marcello (Nicholas Lester), Schaunard (Frederick Long), the musician of the group, and the philosopher Colline (bass-baritone James Ioelu), who celebrate together over wine and song after managing to avoid the rent-collector Benoît (Charles Johnston).
Alison Langer as Musetta, Nicholas Lester as Marcello
Later that evening Rodolfo is again distracted following a chance encounter with his beautiful, yet fragile neighbour Mimì, a part-time embroideress, and the Irish soprano Màire Flavin is superbly cast in the role; conveying all the vulnerability of the character in their first scene together through strong acting and impeccable expression when she sings “Yes, they call me Mimì”. Asking Rodolfo to light her candle as the moonlight shines in through the garret, she loses her key and her heart.
Rodolfo and Mimì’s blossoming romance is confirmed at the Christmas festivities held at Café Momus in the Latin Quarter, while Marcello’s former love Musetta, (the charismatic Alison Langer) makes a shameless display of throwing over her rich benefactor in order to rekindle their affair. In a scene filled with gaiety and youthful hedonism, Langer has star presence as Musetta, while the character’s questionable morals make Mimì appear all the more ethereal. There’s a convincing chemistry between both Flaum and Flavin and Langer and Lester, making for a captivating piece of storytelling that does sometimes leave the other characters forgotten. It’s worth paying attention to Ioelu as Colline, however, as he has been mentored by Dame Kiri Te Kanawa and the Kiri Te Kanawa foundation and does much with this relatively small role.
Whilst I’m not usually a fan of translations from the original, lyrical-sounding Italian, this English version by director Christopher Cowell shows his masterful handle on the libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica which was inspired by the now obscure author Henri Murger’s novel, Scènes de la vie de bohème, a portrayal of young bohemians in the Latin Quarter of Paris. La bohème is now regarded as one of the most romantic operas of the 19th century, while Cowell’s translation allows the audience to follow every nuance of the developing passions effortlessly, drawing us further into the story and thus enhancing our pleasure of the music. Operas at Iford are always sung in English for this reason, and it’s one of the only UK venues that utterly demands it.
Máire Flavin as Mimì
Like many a youthful passion, the following acts see Rodolfo and Marcello fall victim to illogical jealousies that impact sorely on their relationships, for both men are victims of taking the women in their lives for granted and growing tired of the familiar. It is only when both women are about to leave them forever that they appreciate the love they failed to cherish, and the intimacy of this unique, exquisite production ramps up the emotions until you feel a lump in the throat and a tear in the eye. It is everything, and more, that you could ever want from a La bohème.
La bohème at Iford Arts on selected days until 13th June 2017. Gates open 6pm for picnics, the performance commences at 7.30pm with one interval. For more information and tickets please visit the website.