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01 Nov 2015

La Bohème, ENO

Back in 2000, Glyndebourne Touring Opera dragged Puccini’s sentimental tale of suffering bohemian artists into the ‘modern urban age’, when director David McVicar ditched the Parisian garrets and nineteenth-century frock coats in favour of a squalid bedsit in which Rodolfo and painter Marcello shared a line of cocaine under the grim glare of naked light bulbs and the clientele at Café Momus included a couple of gaudily attired transvestites.

La Bohème, ENO

A review by Claire Seymour



McVicar’s production followed the 1990s Broadway musical, Rent, which re-located Puccini’s starving hedonists to New York’s East Village where the threat of AIDS cast a grim shadow over their creative struggles. And in 2004, McVicar was at it again, given us an opium-addicted Faust in his production of Gounod’s opera at Covent Garden, a counter-part for Claixto Bieito’s drug-crazed Don Giovanni at ENO of that same year.

So now it is Benedict Andrews’s turn: the bohemians of Andrews’s new ENO production of La Bohème live in an airy, light-drenched converted warehouse — décor: open-plan modernist minimalism — and hit their ‘highs’ courtesy of the needle rather than the pen or paint-brush. And, there’s no reason why 1990s’ heroin chic might not prove a convincing parallel for the Parisian pleasure-seeking of Henri Murger’s nineteenth-century bohemians, who inhabited a ‘country’ — as one contemporary remarked (as noted in Christopher Cook’s programme article) — ‘bordered on the [n]orth by need. On the south by misery. On the east by illusion. And on the west by the infirmary’. Tubercular pallor might well translate effectively into the waifish emaciation and gaunt angularity of mid-1990s fashion nihilism.

The problem is that for Andrews the dope house gesture, is just that — a gimmick: played for a shot of ‘shock’ and then pretty much abandoned, like a used syringe. If our four would-be geniuses were to be seen routinely shooting up and nodding out then the milieu might be more convincing. Instead, in Act 1 they indulge in school-boy horseplay, raucously baiting Benoit when he arrives demanding payment of the rent; like an infantile undergraduate, Schaunard seems to have stolen a trolley from Tesco in which to wheel home his party food. Then, in Act 4 the chaps’ idea of carousing is to bounce on a mattress, burst some feather pillows and spray each other with Marcello’s paint. More children’s playground than drugs den.

Andrews just dabbles with the habits. But, worse, he proposes that when Mimì — who has languished, shivering, fiddling with her mobile ’phone during the opening scene — enters the boys’ white-washed apartment and is rapidly overcome with weakness, Rodolfo offers her not a restorative glass of wine but a syringe of smack. Given that Mimì seems to be sporting in a shiny pink nurse’s uniform under her parka, when Rodolfo whipped out a tourniquet and needle I wondered briefly if she was about to give him a flu jab. But, no, as he tells her of his poetic ambitions and praises her beauty, he introduces her to the joys of narcotic addiction; then, he slumps to the floor in a drug-fuelled dream, totally oblivious of her own account of her life as a seamstress. Are we really supposed to believe that the musical climaxes of Puccini’s score represents a heroin rush? And that Rodolfo is won over by a biographical narrative he does not even hear. When his impatient friends return, Rodolfo deflects them, ‘I just have a few more lines to do’: the thought that Andrews had chosen the wrong drug prompted a wry grimace.

There’s no reason why up-dating Bohème shouldn’t work; but it needs to be more than a cosmetic flourish. At the end of Act 1 the curtain falls on the prostrate lovers; when it rises again, after some minutes, there they still lie — but any fears we might have about an over-dose are swept aside when the newly enamoured pair jump to their feet and wend their way cheerfully to the crowded Café Momus. And, that’s the last signal or inference we have that Rodolfo is a smack-addict who familiarises Mimì with his poison.

Johannes Schütz’s designs for the following Acts lack overall coherence, and the specific locale and period become less precise. The warehouse apartment walls separate into partitions which spin and re-arrange themselves, and during an overly fussy Act 2 — populated by assorted shoppers, clowns and children sporting ugly masks more suited to Hallowe’en than a Christmas Eve party — it becomes increasingly difficult to focus on individual characterisation and development; or to discern moments of intimacy between Rodolfo and Mimì, or Marcello and Musetta, amid the general clamour. A pink light suffuses the scene — to match Mimì’s unsightly bobbed-wig — but this adds not a jot of romantic sensibility.

In Acts 3 and 4, the production becomes yet more unanchored. Admittedly, the simplicity of Act 3, with its direct contrast of a freezing street scene ‘heated’ by genuine romantic feeling and a scorching hot tavern — whose interior is hidden but from whence spills a burning red glow — where the raucous revellers are coolly detached from real emotional engagement, is effective. As mist and snow swirl outside, night workers in hi-vis jackets gather round a brazier and cleaners make their way to their mid-night shifts, while Mimì and Rodolfo despairing confront the knowledge that their love cannot surmount his jealousy and her illness. But, it’s not clear where or when we actually are. And in Act 4, the artist’s Shoreditch squat seems to have been re-located to a more salubrious suburb; through the floor-to-ceiling windows (now decidedly cleaner than they were in Act 1) we espy children nonchalantly swinging from the trees in a residential park whose trees are bathed in a nostalgic warm light worthy of a Chekhov play.

The main problem with Andrews’s up-dating, putting aside its inconsistencies, is the clash of registers. On one hand the text (translation by Amanda Holden), which contains prosaic banalities such as ‘you stupid tossers’ and ‘this terrible crooning is really disgusting’, hardly speaks of grand poetic passions. When Musetta cries out in podiatric pain and Alcindoro rushes to kiss her ailing feet, Marcello’s cry of ‘Off to the shoe shop, quick!’ injects bathos into a moment where the latters real love, and emotional anguish, should be evident.

More dissatisfying still is the mis-match between musical and dramatic registers. In the programme, Music Director Mark Wigglesworth expresses his excitement at being able to ‘refresh the long performing tradition of a classic — to offer a view of the piece that is as relevant now as it has even been’. That’s all very well, but ‘relevant’ doesn’t have to refer to the visual or conceptual; untimely tragic deaths of young people are always ‘relevant’, as are tales of unfulfilled love. Moreover, as Cook points out, Murger’s Scènes de la vie de bohème, the source for Puccini’s librettists Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illaca, ‘is a product of its age … quintessentially Romantic — [insistent] on the paramount value of personal feelings’. To that, I would add that it is ‘Romantic’ in that the bohemians believe that art and life are inextricable: that intensity of emotion fuels the aesthetic experiences which the creative imagination of the ‘artist’ realises. Or, as Jonathan Miller, quoted by Cook, has suggested: ‘What matters is the romantic prematurity of the death and the fact it took some time to kill them. There was a sort of romantic wasting, a fading away which could be seen to be a metaphor for the wasting effect on the sensitive mind of the exercise of the fevered imagination.’

It is this ‘Romanticism’ that Puccini’s music confirms, but which during this performance conductor Xian Zhang distinctly failed to communicate. The orchestral playing was competent, though the fairly pedestrian tempi slowed still further at the emotional highpoints; but there was insufficient ardour and sumptuousness. These four young men, dramatically and musically, seemed to lack the very artistic sensibility and sensuality that should be the driving force within them. The only hints that they might possess the aspirations of a Romantic artist occur when Marcello complains that he can’t find the right hue of red for the mural he is painting and that his pencil is useless, and Rodolfo similarly blames his biro for his inability to pen purple prose. (And, in this regard, Rodolfo’s preference for a type-writer over a lap-top further blurs the specificity of the period-setting.)

Fortunately, American soprano Corinne Winters’ Mimì provided some compensation. Winters worked hard and with intelligence to find a variety of colours, each appropriate to the dramatic moment. Her soprano has real strength and character, and her technique is assured, though — while she never lapsed into sentimental insipidity — Winters did struggle to convey a persuasive vulnerability. That said, it was almost entirely thanks to her that the final moments — as Mimi crawls from her table-top mattress and slumps against the white-washed walls — had an emotional impact. Though we never know whether it is her chronic cough or compulsive crack cravings which have killed her, Mimi’s death still touched the audience’s hearts.

As Rodolfo, American tenor Zach Borichevsky was pushed to the limits of his technique. He did well to negotiate the challenges, but while he could reach the upper register with accuracy and focus, he struggled to sustain the upper-lying phrases, which often fell away anti-climactically. Borichevsky’s tone is pleasing and refined, but lacks a confident warmth. Over time he may grow into the role.

Duncan Rock’s Marcello was the stand-out performance — even though he was forced to wear a series of terrible costumes, in Act 2 throwing an overcoat over the out-sized striped pyjamas he sported in Act 1 and topping the outfit with a Stetson, before swapping the bed-wear for a baggy mustard sweatshirt in Act 4. The skinny jeans and ti-shirts of his friends are dull but at least not so distasteful; but despite these sartorial disadvantages, Rock used his powerful baritone to make Marcello a three-dimensional character, at times petulant but with a genuine sense of fun; a young man who seemed ‘real’ and about whom we might care.

Ashley Riches (Schaunard) and Nicholas Masters (Colline) were competent but vocally a little light-weight and dramatically somewhat disengaged. As Musetta, Rhian Lois was not sure whether she was supposed to be a vicious, selfish tramp — her violent assault on Alcindoro’s nether regions left him staggering off in excruciating agony, in search of new footwear — or a ‘tart with a heart’; probably Andrews wasn’t sure either: Musetta traded her gold lame provocateur image for powder-blue demureness in the final Act. Lois’s sparkling soprano made a strong impact on her entrance into the over-crowded Café Momus, but there was little sense of genuine feeling between Musetta and Marcello. Simon Butteriss engaged in some hammy over-indulgence as Benoit and the fur-coated Alcindoro, and his dramatic exuberance was as distracting as his tendency to over-emphasise the text. The assonance of Benoit’s demand, ‘Do you know how much you owe me?’, encouraged an exaggerated enunciation of vowels which distorted both word and vocal tone; throughout, a bit less would have been much more.

This isn’t a really dreadful Bohème — the audience were appreciative and the applause was warm — just one which is a bit misguided and which misses its opportunities. The young cast offer some pleasing singing. ENO need a few sure-fire hits; so one wonders why they have discarded Jonathan Miller’s esteemed 2009 production, which was revived just three times (given that Miller’s much more oft-seen Barber and Mikado are still on the bill this season). One can’t help feeling that it won’t be all that long before this junkie-Bohème is itself junked.

Claire Seymour

Cast and production information:

Mimì: Corinne Winters, Rodolfo: Zach Borichevsky, Marcello: Duncan Rock, Musetta: Rhian Lois, Colline: Nicholas Masters, Schaunard: Ashley Riches, Benoit/Alcindoro: Simon Butteriss; Director: Benedict Andrews, Conductor: Xian Zhang, Set Designer: Johannes Schütz, Costume Designer: Victoria Behr, Lighting Designer: Jon Clark, Associate Director: Ran Arthur Braun, Translator: Amanda Holden; Orchestra and Chorus of English National Opera. English National Opera, London Coliseum, Thursday 29th October 2015.

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