24 Oct 2010
La Bohème, ENO
ENO clearly expect high returns from Jonathan Miller’s La Bohème.
On August 1, 2015, Santa Fe Opera presented the world premiere of Cold Mountain, a brand new opera composed by Pulizer Prize and Grammy winner Jennifer Higdon.
Puccini’s Manon Lescaut at the Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich. Some will scream in rage but in its austerity it reaches to the heart of the opera.
It might seem churlish to complain about the BBC Proms coverage of Pierre Boulez’s 90th anniversary. After all, there are a few performances dotted around — although some seem rather oddly programmed, as if embarrassed at the presence of new or newish music. (That could certainly not be claimed in the present case.)
I recently spent four days in St. Petersburg, timed to coincide with the annual Stars of the White Nights Festival. Yet the most memorable singing I heard was neither at the Mariinsky Theater nor any other performance hall. It was in the small, nearly empty church built for the last Tsar, Nicholas II, at Tsarskoye Selo.
As I walked up Exhibition Road on my way to the Royal Albert Hall, I passed a busking tuba player whose fairground ditties were enlivened by bursts of flame which shot skyward from the bell of his instrument, to the amusement and bemusement of a rapidly gathering pavement audience.
A brilliant theatrical event, bringing Handel’s theatre of the mind to life on stage
‘Here, thanks be to God, my opera is praised to the skies and there is nothing in it which does not please greatly.’ So wrote Antonio Vivaldi to Marchese Guido Bentivoglio d’Aragona in Ferrara in 1737.
Asphyxiations, atrophy by poison, assassination: in Italo Montemezzi’s L’amore dei tre Re (The Love of the Three Kings, 1913) foul deed follows foul deed until the corpses are piled high.
The precision of attack in the opening to Beethoven’s Creatures of Prometheus Overture signalled thoroughgoing excellence in the contribution of the CBSO to this concert.
When he was skilfully negotiating the not inconsiderable complexities, upheavals and strife of musical and religious life at the English royal court during the Reformation, Thomas Tallis (c.1505-85) could hardly have imagined that more than 450 years later people would be queuing round the block for the opportunity spend their lunch-hour listening to the music that he composed in service of his God and his monarch.
Two of the important late twentieth century stage directors, Robert Carsen and Peter Sellars, returned to the Aix Festival this summer. Carsen’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a masterpiece, Sellars’ strange Tchaikovsky/Stravinsky double bill is simply bizarre.
The annual celebration of young talent at the Royal Opera House is a magnificent showcase, and it was good to see such a healthy audience turnout.
There are few operas that can rival the visceral impact of a well-staged Jenůfa and Des Moines Metro Opera has emphatically delivered the goods.
The Girl of the Golden West (La Fanciulla del West) often gets eclipsed when compared to the rest of the mature Puccini canon.
First Night of the BBC Proms 2015 with Sakari Oramo in exuberant form, pulling off William Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast with the theatrical flair it deserves.
Plus an evening by the superb Modigliani Quartet that complimented the brief (55 minutes) a cappella opera for six female voices Svadba (2013) by Serbian composer Ana Sokolovic (b. 1968). She lives in Canada.
With its revelatory production of Rappaccini’s Daughter performed outdoors in the city’s refurbished Botanical Gardens, Des Moines Metro Opera has unlocked the gate to a mysterious, challenging landscape of musical delights.
Des Moines Metro Opera has quite a crowd-pleasing production of The Abduction from the Seraglio on its hands.
Even by Shakespeare’s standards A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of his earlier plays, boasts a particularly fantastical plot involving a bunch of aristocrats (the Athenian Court of Theseus), feuding gods and goddesses (Oberon and Titania), ‘Rude Mechanicals’ (Bottom, Quince et al) and assorted faeries and spirits (such as Puck).
What do we call Tristan und Isolde? That may seem a silly question. Tristan und Isolde, surely, and Tristan for short, although already we come to the exquisite difficulty, as Tristan and Isolde themselves partly seem (though do they only seem?) to recognise of that celebrated ‘und’.
ENO clearly expect high returns from Jonathan Miller’s La Bohème.
Premièred just over a year ago and here receiving its first ‘revival’, the management are surely justified in their faith that it will match the enduring successes of his perennial Mikado (which will make yet another appearance in spring 2010) and Rigoletto: this Bohème is an apt tale of poverty and paucity to fill the coffers in austere times. For, while Miller’s vision certainly doesn’t indulge in sentimentalism — his bohemians are a pretty solipsistic bunch — he and his ingenious designer, Isabella Bywater, present us with an ocular feast. Updating the action to 1930s Paris, they have drawn copiously on the visual records of the period — the sepia-tinted photographs of Cartier-Brassaï and Kertész, the cinematography of film noir — to powerfully recreate the zeitgeist of a Depression-era Europe hedonistically living for today in the face of an uncertain or bleak future.
Bywater’s inspired designs are superbly detailed and naturalistic. Within the monochrome greys of city life, contrasts and counter-currents are pointed: the lofty atelier, with assorted clutter, perches above an empty café; Mimi’s humble rooms lie to the right of twisting staircase; the glimpsed warmth of a café interior poignantly emphasises the literal and figurative chill of the wintry square where Mimi and Rodolfo play out their tragedy. The Act 1 set splits and spins artfully, revealing first a street scene and then twisting back to display the exterior and pavement tables of Café Momus — a scene of sparkling yet superficial vivacity, splashes of colour briefly dismissingly the steely grey. Later, another rotation reveals an employment office, a reminder of reality; a further revolution takes us back to the garret room. The cinematic continuity is effortlessly achieved — a neat realisation of Puccini’s verismo (one is reminded that the first production was screened by Sky Arts, different Sky channels simultaneously relaying the events on stage and the backstage action a TV first for ENO).
Mairead Buicke as Musetta
Miller uses the spaces well: in the early acts, many a riposte is shouted from the Bohemians’ bathroom, warnings cry out from the stair-well, a marching band sweeps across the stage at the Act 2 curtain call, creating a sense of space and air which contrasts with the claustrophobic death room of the final scene. Jean Kalman’s lighting is subtle and thoughtful, no more so than when reflections from lowered windows of the garret add fragile glitter and light to the somewhat desperate Christmas festivities of the Café Momus revellers.
Miller is ever alert to the impact of small gestures and details: shutters are quietly closed as someone leaves the room, a lovers’ argument is glimpsed through an upstairs window. But, despite this attention to detail — aided perhaps by the sympathetic spontaneity of the performers themselves — this is not an overly fussy production. Miller’s chief concern seems to be to tell a simple story in a straightforward way, and he succeeds but this very simplicity does give rise to some difficulties.
Part of the problem is that the staging often raises the characters aloft, or pitches them afar. Thus, it’s difficult to establish who they really are — what they feel, if anything. A seemingly heartless bunch, they behave foolishly and suffer for their follies, but do we care? The first meeting of Rodolfo and Mimi is mutually contrived, and because their faces are essentially hidden from view, it’s hard to believe in their passion, or to be convinced that it would last more than one night! The orchestra may speak to us of romance, but our eyes witness a mercantile exchange, especially as Mimi begs continually for new gloves, a necklace The result is a drama with fewer tragic pulses than the average TV soap — there should be scarcely a dry eye in the house at the close, but any tears were surely the product of the superlatively tender violin accompaniment to Mimi’s demise rather than regret for her passing?
Gwyn Hughes Jones as Rodolfo, George von Bergen as Schaunard, Roland Wood as Marcello and Pauls Putninš as Colline
That’s not to say that the cast don’t put on a good show. Not least, we are introduced to Elizabeth Llewellyn, making her company debut as Mimi. A graduate of ENO Opera Works — a training opportunity for talented pre-professional singers who demonstrate potential, and designed specifically for those who come to the profession via unconventional routes — her warm, generous voice easily reached the rafters of the Coliseum, and was much appreciated by the audience. However, while this is an opera which always requires the audience to suspend their disbelief, it was hard to be persuaded that one of such remarkable vocal power was on the verge of consumption-afflicted demise a little more balance between affecting power and vulnerability would have been welcome.
Perhaps the problem is Miller’s conception of the role, for this Mimi is a consumerist flirt who at times seems to have less integrity than Mairead Buicke’s Musetta. Buicke, sporting a neat bob and modish apparel, has great stage presence and relished the theatricality of the role; she had no problem with the virtuosic demands of the part, although she does occasionally sound piercing or shrill. Gywn Hughes-Jones’ Rodolfo is a rather self-pitying sniveller, afraid of his emotions, insecure in his relationships. Challenged, as were the entire cast, to project above an enthusiastic orchestral fabric, often from the far reaches of the stage, Hughes-Jones was strong-toned and confident, but had a tendency to bellow and to come at notes from the side or below.
The Bohemians’ banter and bickering was humorously directed, with four of the first cast returning to their original roles. Roland Wood’s Marcello is vocally a little light-weight, but his diction was clear and his delivery elegant; the spitefulness of his repartee with Musetta added a surprising and effective frisson. George von Bergen and Paul Putninš were charming enough but made little dramatic impact. More arresting was Simon Butteris, whose amusingly lecherous Benoit is a perfectly conceived caricature. Both he and Richard Angas delivered their lines clearly and directly.
Stephen Lord encouraged the ENO orchestra to produce a rich palette of swelling Puccinian rhetoric, injecting some passion into this rather cold-hearted concept. But, this is ‘easy-listening’ and ‘comfort-viewing’ — indeed, in style and substance, there’s not much to choose between these Bohemians and another set of ‘miserables’ elsewhere in the West End. Direct, unpretentious and unsentimental, Jonathan Miller has given ENO another sure-fire winner.