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02 Nov 2014

La bohème, ENO

Jonathan Miller’s production of La bohème for ENO, shared with Cincinnati Opera, sits uneasily, at least as revived by Natascha Metherell, between comedy and tragedy.

Giacomo Puccini: La bohème

A review by Mark Berry


Perhaps, you might say, that is as it should be; there is certainly an element of taste in such matters. However, it seems to me that a highly creditable desire to explore the darker elements — and they are hardly difficult to find! — in Puccini’s opera is somewhat undone by moments closer to farce. The greyness of an imagined Paris inspired by Cartier-Bresson works very well, Isabella Bywater’s designs in themselves a great visual strength, waiting to be relieved by brief, or at least relatively brief, moments of colour. Café Momus makes a particular impression in that respect. However, I could not help but wonder whether some of the things — entrances, concealment, and so on — one sees going on around the sets would be better left unseen. Elements of ‘surprise’ — yes, many of us know the opera all too well, but that is a different matter — are lost, without the ‘workings’ adding anything genuinely new. Still, it is a relief not to have anything too sugary; the last thing Puccini of all composers needs is sentimentalising. Doubtless I have been spoilt by seeing Stefan Herheim’s urgently compelling version on DVD: the only staging of this work that has really revealed anything at all to me. Recommended to Puccini-lovers and —sceptics alike, indeed to anyone who believes that opera can and should be something more than a tired museum piece.

A few more serious drawbacks prevented the evening from having had the impact it might have done. Amanda Holden’s translation started off poorly and, if anything, got worse. It managed both to be vaguely ‘after’ the libretto and dreadfully anti-musical. Italian suffers worse than most languages by translation into English, but the task can be accomplished much better than this. This was a version only for those who might think there is something ‘edgy’ about people randomly singing the word ‘bastards’. But then, perhaps a selfish — or hard-of-hearing? — audience happy to applaud throughout, and indeed before the orchestra had stopped playing at the ends of acts was genuinely enthralled or even shocked by such banalities. Moreover, Gianluca Marcianò’s charmless conducting helped nothing or no one. The first act in particular seemed devoid of life. I struggled in vain to hear anything throughout the evening that would vindicate Puccini’s symphonic ambition. Instead, phrases followed one after another, quite unconnected. The ENO Orchestra, on generally excellent form, both pointed and luscious where permitted, deserved far better.

So too did the cast: probably the principal reason to catch this revival. There was a good sense of ensemble between the singers, which will doubtless only increase as the run progresses. Individually, there is much to admire too. David Butt Philip really presented Rodolfo as a credible character, not a mere opportunity to sing. The conflicts within his soul, cowardice and self-absorption vying with a genuine if ‘poetic’ aspiration towards something nobler, came across with considerable subtlety. Angel Blue seemed slightly stilted to start with, but quickly grew into the role of Mimì. Her vocal allure is by now reasonably well known; it did not disappoint. However, a little more attention at times to words and their implications would have deepened the impression. If George von Bergen was somewhat stiff as Marcello, the other students impressed; Barnaby Rea’s Colline and the Schaunard of George Humphreys helped to create a proper sense of milieu and preoccupation from which Rodolfo could emerge. Jennifer Holloway’s Musetta very much looked the part, but the top of her range proved uncomfortably strident, even squally. Andrew Shore, however, proved luxury casting as Benoît and Alcindoro, vivid portrayals them both.

Mark Berry

Cast and production information:

Marcello: George van Bergen; Rodolfo: David Butt Philip; Colline: Barnaby Rea; Schaunard: George Humphreys; Benoît, Alcindoro: Andrew Shore; Mimì: Angel Blue; Parpignol: Philip Daggett; Musetta: Jennifer Holloway; Policeman: Paul Sheehan; Foreman: Andrew Tinkler. Jonathan Miller (director); Natascha Metherell (revival director); Isabella Bywater (designs); Jean Kalman, Kevin Sleep (lighting). Chorus (chorus master: Genevieve Ellis) and Orchestra of the English National Opera/ Gianluca Marcianò (conductor). Coliseum, London, Wednesday 29 October 2014.

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