21 May 2013

La bohème at ENO

This second revival of Jonathan Miller’s La bohème was the first time I had caught the production.

Miller has often been over-praised, particularly by those ‘of a certain age’, apparently unaware or unwilling to accept that the world has moved on from the 1960s of their youth; indeed, Miller’s Royal Opera Così fan tutte is not simply bad, but one of the most objectionable stagings I have seen of anything. This Bohème, whilst hardly groundbreaking, does its job reasonably enough. For some reason, the action is updated to the Paris of the 1930s. Beyond imparting a certain cinematic quality — though not necessarily nearly so much as Miller and his designer, Isabella Bywater seem to think it does — it is not clear what is gained, but nor for that matter is a great deal lost. An individual’s fondness for the photography of George Brassaï does not in itself seem to me justification for a production, but anyway... The characters are for well directed on stage, for which revival director, Natascha Metherell should doubtless receive much of the credit. (Both Metherell and Miller appeared on stage to take a bow.) Occasionally, I wondered whether the action were a little too prey to domestification of the wrong way; the meeting between Rodolfo and Mimì is decidedly low-key, more akin to a neighbourhood watch meeting than an ignition of passion. However, the selfishness of ‘Bohemian’ youth comes across at least as strongly as I can recall upon other occasions: are not these boys to some extent playing at poverty, whilst Mimì’s suffering is the real thing?

Described in the publicity blurb as a ‘cast of young British talent’, that is for the most part what it is. I have little patience with those who castigate ENO — or Covent Garden, for that matter — for ‘failing to promote British artists’. The arts world has, let us be grateful, yet to capitulate to the insidious yet hysterical nationalism pervading much of our political class and media. What we want are singers, artists in general, who are good, and preferably more than that. With the exception of Gwyn Hughes Jones, we did pretty well. Though his Rodolfo improved somewhat during the third and fourth acts, and was not without sensitivity, there was too much that was simply crude, almost an allegedly ‘Italianate’ parody, or strangely faceless. The vacuum extended to stage presence too; it would have been well-nigh impossible to believe in him as a Romantic lead. Kate Valentine’s Mimì, on the other hand, was a credit to her and to ENO. Nobility of spirit was allied to sterling, necessary musical values of phrasing and tonal variegation. It was a delight to make the acquaintance of the charismatic American singer, the splendidly named Angel Blue (an exception in terms of nationality, but certainly not quality). She sang as well as she acted, holding the stage without effort, imparting both ‘artistic’ superiority to Musetta as singer and, increasingly, warm humanity to her as woman. Richard Burkhard’s Marcello impressed too, as did the excellently sung — and acted — Colline of Andrew Craig Brown and Schaunard of Duncan Rock. It was a pity that Simon Butteriss over-acted — ‘silly voice’ rather than expression of the text through singing — in the role of Benoit; maybe he was doing so under orders. A greater pity was the banality of Amanda Holden’s translation; making Puccini sound satisfactory in English is not the easiest of tasks, but too often, a tin ear revealed itself in the straightforward incompatibility of words and vocal line.

Oleg Caetani made a very welcome return to the Coliseum. His direction of the ENO Orchestra was splendid, rich in tone — sometimes, a little more, alla Daniele Gatti, would have been appreciated there, but then Gatti, last summer, had the Vienna Philharmonic — but above all, dramatically alert. Temptations to linger, to sentimentalise, were eschewed, without draining the drama of its lifeblood. Wagnerisms — I noticed some especially Tristan-esque progressions — and modernisms were not necessarily underlined, yet, given Caetani’s ear for balance and line, caught one’s ear nevertheless. I should love one day to hear a properly modernistic Bohème — or Tosca. This was not it, but refusal to play to the gallery, and underlining of solid, yet certainly not stolid, musical virtues proved a great relief for a work in which superficial gloss can all too readily hold sway. Choral singing and direction of the chorus also proved estimable throughout.

Mark Berry

Click here for a photo gallery of this production.

Cast and production information:

Marcello: Richard Burkhard; Rodolfo: Gwyn Hughes Jones; Colline: Andrew Craig Brown; Schaunard: Duncan Rock; Benoit: Simon Butteriss; Mimì: Kate Valentine; Parpignol: Philip Daggett; Musetta: Angel Blue; Alcindoro: Simon Butteriss; Policeman: Paul Sheehan; Foreman; Andrew Tinkler. Jonathan Miller (director); Natascha Metherell (revival director); Isabella Bywater (designs); Jean Kalman, Kevin Sleep (lighting). Orchestra and Chorus (chorus master: Genevieve Ellis) of the English National Opera/Oleg Caetani (conductor). The Coliseum, London, 29.4.2013.