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Performances

29 Nov 2018

Jonathan Miller's La bohème returns to the Coliseum

And still they come. No year goes by without multiple opportunities to see it; few years now go by without my taking at least one of those opportunities. Indeed, I see that I shall now have gone to Jonathan Miller’s staging on three of its five (!) outings since it was first seen at ENO in 2009.

ENO revive Jonathan Miller’s La bohème

A review by Mark Berry

Above: David Soar, Nicholas Lester, Bozidar Smiljanic, Jonathan Tetelman

Photo credit: Robert Workman

 

Is there a degree of overkill, especially when it comes to a far from adventurous production? Perhaps, although I am well aware of the (alleged) reasons for a company performing the opera so frequently. Do they add up, though? Judging by the number of empty seats at the Coliseum on this, the first night, I am not sure that they do. Might that indicate that it is time to give the work a rest or a new production? Again, perhaps, although what in the present climate would be an adequate substitute for box-office certainty? Perhaps there is no longer any such thing. Is that a bad thing? For a company struggling with declining funding and years of mismanagement - remember the self-styled ‘She-E-O’, Cressida Pollock, granting interviews about how she liked to relax with a bottle of wine whilst wearing her favourite training shoes, at the same time as attempting to sack the chorus? - the answer would seem to be yes. On the other hand, might it ultimately be a prod towards diversity of repertoire, towards taking Puccini as something more artistically serious than a box-office certainty, towards asking whether a performance in an often jarring English translation vaguely ‘after’ Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica is really the best way to ‘sell’ as well as to perform this work to a multicultural audience? Perhaps. We shall see.

One very welcome aspect of this performance - and possible justification for retaining the production a little while longer - was the opportunity it granted, well grasped indeed, to a young cast including two of ENO’s Harewood Artists: Nadine Benjamin and Božidar Smiljanić. Benjamin’s Musetta is very much her own woman, no mere memory of other Musettas we have heard - or claim to have heard (‘does not efface post-war memories of Dame Ermintrude Heckmondthwike, “Ermie” we called her…’). Not that she was different for the sake of it, quite the contrary, the crucial facets of Musetta’s character coming through bright and clear, but fresh too, very much an acquaintance as well as a reacquaintaince - and a vocal acquaintance too. Smiljanić is likewise an able actor and impressed greatly both as soloist, insofar as possible for a Schaunard, and in ensemble. Likewise David Soar as Colline, his final-act moment something truly to savour. Nicholas Lester’s Marcello was definitely a cut above the average, rich and, where appropriate, ardent of tone, hinting cleverly at far more to the character than we ever officially learn (surely so much of the trick to a compelling Puccini performance). Simon Butteriss’s comedic turns as Benoît and Alcindoro even had a doubter such as I consider the approach (Miller’s, I suspect, more than the artist’s) perfectly justified.

Nadine Benjamin Robert Workman.jpgNadine Benjamin and ENO cast. Photo credit: Robert Workman.

Last yet anything but least, our pair of star-crossed lovers, played by Jonathan Tetelman and Natalya Romaniw, showed themselves (mostly) sensitive artists who could yet project to the back of the largest of theatres. (Alas, the Coliseum remains not the least of ENO’s problems, whatever audience members ‘of a certain age’ might claim.) Romaniw’s Mimì proved perhaps the more moving early on, but that is more likely a consequence of the opera itself than of any great performative disparity; both certainly moved in the final tragedy of the work’s final minutes. If only they had not on occasion - under instruction, I suspect - played to the gallery, treating their ‘big moments’ as stand-alone arias. The real culprit here, I think, was Alexander Joel. His conducting of the ever-excellent ENO Orchestra was incisive and mostly unsentimental, but he seemed incapable of thinking - or at least projecting - a greater unity to each act, let alone to the score as a whole. Of Puccini’s ‘symphonism’, we heard little or nothing.

As for Miller’s production, ably revived by Natascha Metherell - who surely deserved a curtain call - it is what it is. Paris updated to the thirties looks beautiful, occasionally desperate too; Personenregie is keen. As mentioned above, I am more reconciled to its comedy than I first was. Moreover, I rather like - some do not - the glimpses we catch of characters off the set as such, carrying on with their lives. Something a little challenging or interesting, though, would surely not go amiss in the future. As yet, few if any directors seem to have matched Stefan Herheim’s challenge in his superlative Norwegian Opera production, let alone gone beyond it. Will time tell? Perhaps.

Mark Berry

Puccini: La bohème

Marcello: Nicholas Lester; Rodolfo: Jonathan Tetelman; Colline: David Soar; Schaunard: Božidar Smiljanić; Benoît: Simon Butteriss; Mimì: Natalya Romaniw; Parpignol: David Newman; Musetta: Nadine Benjamin; Alcindoro: Simon Butteriss; Policeman: Paul Sheehan; Official: Andrew Tinkler. Director: Jonathan Miller; Revival director: Natascha Metherell; Set Designs: Isabela Bywater; Lighting: Jean Kalman; Revival lighting: Kevin Sleep; Chorus (chorus master: Mark Biggins) and Orchestra of the English National Opera/Alexander Joel (conductor). Coliseum, London; Monday 26 November 2018.

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