Simply and effectively staged by Elaine Kidd, Opera Holland Park's La Bohème puts right what went wrong in Jonathan Miller's lavish English National Opera staging.
Both are set in the Great Depression: a tawdry era of taupe and grey, tired overcoats, empty wallets and hungry eyes. But where Miller took Rodolfo's remark about buying Mimi a coral necklace "when his rich uncle dies" as an indication that the young writer is merely playing at being Bohemian, Kidd has Aldo Di Toro deliver it with spitting irony. There is no rich uncle here, no hope of unearned wealth. Just the hand-to-mouth earnings of a poet, playwright and journalist whose pride, self-doubt and jealousy are the engine of an intractably unhappy affair.
Swift and sometimes brutal, save for an extravagantly slow and overtly sexual "Quando me'*vo", Robert Dean's conducting ensures that the pace never flags. Two kisses seal Acts I and II. The first, between Aldo Di Toro's Rodolfo and Linda Richardson's Mimi, is held as the vast canvas in the young artist's garret is ripped down to reveal the front of Café Momus. The second, a Doisneau-esque clinch between Grant Doyle's wry Marcello and Hye-Youn Lee's kittenish Musetta, brings down the lights for the interval. It's a neat device and underlines the difference between the two couples, setting the scene for the Act III quartet. For all their bickering, Marcello and Musetta have an intimacy and ease that evades Rodolfo and Mimi. Tall and awkward, Richardson's seamstress is unable to conceal her abject loneliness with whimsy, while Di Toro's Rodolfo is a ball of frustration.
Tim Mirfin's self-mocking Colline, and Njabulo Madlala's expansive Schaunard are warmly drawn, while Eric Roberts doubles as the baffled Benoit and duped Alcindoro. Cleverly designed by Colin Richmond, and sung passionately by the cast and chorus, this is an unsentimental, unfussy and sincere Bohème.
From Haydn to Helmut Lachenmann, the final 36 hours of this year's Aldeburgh Festival seduced and provoked the ear. Nicholas Daniel and Charles Owen's palindromic recital of music for oboe and piano began unsteadily with an unflattering transcription of Bach's Sonata in A major (BWV 1032) and closed in the happier tessitura of the E-flat Sonata (BWV 1031).
Both performers sounded more fluent in Schumann's poignant, questing Three Romances. Howard Ferguson's arrangements of three of Schumann's Studies and Sketches had a delicate, moonlit quality, while Birtwistle's An Interrupted Endless Melody suspended the oboe's angry elegy over dustily percussive broken chords. Two elliptical works for unaccompanied oboe by Elliott Carter (Inner Song and HBHH) framed Pavel Haas's declamatory Suite for Oboe and Piano: a Janácekian ululation of outrage played with ferocious lyricism.
Tenor Robin Tritschler was the decisive star of the third of the festival's concerts of Britten's Song Cycles. Accompanied by Malcolm Martineau, his fresh, flexible sound and thoughtful characterisation made the sour vicar, humble choirmaster, wondering baby and handcuffed criminal of Britten's Thomas Hardy settings, Winter Words, spring to life. Masaaki Suzuki's performance of the St Matthew Passion with the Britten-Pears Baroque Orchestra was blessed with a sublime flute obbligato from Anne Pustlauk, perceptive and stylish leading from violinist Johannes Pramsholer and a meticulously controlled Christus from Jonathan Sells, though Suzuki's tempi vacillated from sluggish ("Kommt, ihr Töchter") to breakneck ("O Mensch, bewein' dein' Sünde gross") and the final refrain of "Ruhe sanfte, sanfte ruh!" was delivered, bizarrely, fortissimo.
Under festival director Pierre-Laurent Aimard, the Mahler Chamber Orchestra's unforced, vibrant tone and incisive, almost Mannerist articulation bloomed in Haydn's Farewell Symphony and Beethoven's Emperor Concerto. Though the violas were consistently sharp, there was fabulous horn playing and excellent work from the double basses, oboe, clarinet and flutes. Few orchestras could move as seamlessly from the generous glow of Haydn and Beethoven to the subdued, crystalline polyphony of Stockhausen's Kontra-Punkte. But few pianists, having played the Emperor Concerto, would sit down 30 minutes later and play Schumann's Gesänge der Frühe.
Programmed with the UK premiere of Helmut Lachenmann's 25-minute cantata ... Got Lost ... (performed by Sarah Leonard and Rolf Hind) and Stockhausen's Gesang der Jünglinge, it was the first of three pieces to explore the breaking-down of language. The difference, of course, is that Stockhausen's electronic bloops and sampled chants and Lachenmann's polylinguistic, obscurantist conceit of fractured vowels and choked consonants are deliberate explosions. Schumann's was the product of a mind in the misery of dementia: a series of aubades that grasp at lucidity and fumble – knotted, frustrated, lost.
A darkened stage, a dozen imps in distressed doublets, a faint mist, a tang of sexual tension, a drowsy glissando and a heavy midsummer moon. Lit by Mark Doubleday and conducted by Michael Rosewell, Ian Judge's exquisite production of A Midsummer Night's Dream for the Royal College of Music was an example of just how enchanting less-is-more can be. No designer was credited. Indeed everything was done with lights, punked-up Elizabethan costumes, a bicycle, a dog, and the movements of a young and enthusiastic cast. If the mortals were a little rough-hewn, Alistair Digges made a delightful Flute/Thisbe and Anna Huntley a touching Hermia. As Oberon, Christopher Lowrey delivered a beguiling "On this bank", while Colette Boushell brightly rat-a-tat-tatted Titania's coloratura. The ensemble work was excellent and Trinity Boys Choir lively and sweet of voice.
I don't know what happens to college productions after their brief end-of-term runs but, like Jo Davies's Cunning Little Vixen and Martin Lloyd-Evans's The King Goes Forth to France, Judge's Dream should be seen again.
'La Bohème' (0845 230 9769) to 15 Aug