Puccini’s evergreen tale of youthful love and loss is only rarely cast with age-appropriate performers. Daisy Evans’ production for Hampstead Garden Opera, a company focused on rising talent, has a natural advantage in its ensemble of 20-something bohemians.
In the intimate Jacksons Lane, this ought to generate sure-fire comedy, romance and pathos. As it turns out, the high jinks feel conventionally stagey, the chemistry of the two central couples is fitful, and the show only stops hearts in the final scene: once the tragedy becomes stark, Evans’ directorial concept comes fully into focus.
Aided by some doctoring of the surtitles, the opera is staged as a stylised flashback. Filtered through Rodolfo’s eyes, it switches between 2009 and 1979, though the period detail is vague. In Act III, disco balls make an evocative substitute for early-morning snow, but Mimì’s hippy-chick look and Marcello’s Miami Vice jacket belong in different eras.
A recurring, and ultimately touching, image is the nostalgic, broken Rodolfo carrying the dead Mimì’s few possessions in a cardboard box with her name scrawled on it. Vocally, Joseph Buckmaster knows how to make the sun break through Rodolfo’s lines, while Fiona Finsbury’s Mimì really blossoms at the top of her range. Peter Edge’s warm, vibrant Marcello is paired with Kathleen Nic Dhiarmada’s incandescent Musetta. As Schaunard, Jacob Feldman makes every detail tell and Laurence Williams (who sings farewell to a denim jacket rather than a coat) is a properly philosophical Colline.
Some dislocation between the singers and the 12-piece orchestra in Act I is soon forgotten as Juliane Gallant conducts with sensitivity and a theatrical charge.