Last Updated on February 3, 2022
Puccini’s La Bohème – A Jonathan Miller Classic Production returns to ENO
As a culture we are obsessed with the ‘femme fragile’; whether it’s Amy Winehouse, Princess Diana or Whitney Houston we consume their tragic narratives with a voracious appetite. It was the same for the late 19th-century audience for whom the consumptive female heroines of Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata and then Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème provided an irresistible draw. Puccini’s four-act opera, with a libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica is playing at the English National Opera until the 27th February in a co-production with Cincinnati Opera and Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona. It’s a revival of Jonathan Miller’s classic 2009 production that fast-forwards the world of the opera from the 1840s to Paris in the 1930s, taking its visual cues from Hungarian photographer Brassaï’s dreamlike black and white photographs of the city of love and lights and its inhabitants. It’s a return to normality for the ENO after their extraordinary 2020 ‘drive-in’ production of La Bohème at Alexander Palace that captivated the critics.
The narrative is taken from Henri Murger’s novel Scenes de la Vie de Bohème. The setting is a cramped Parisian attic garret inhabited by four unsuccessful young ‘bohemian’ artists who are doing their best to avoid paying their rent. Isabella Bywater’s set takes us into the greys and shadows of the Parisian demi-monde with a physically imposing building that dominates the stage with the garret perched on top. It cleverly revolves, with some help from the stagehands last night, to reveal the street scenes and Cafe Momus, the Latin Quarter restaurant where much of Act 2 plays out.
The story revolves around two couples; the poet Rodolfo, played by Korean tenor David Junghoon Kim with a stagey emotional intensity. Unfortunately, his lower range can tend to disappear under the orchestra at times but he reached the high Cs with a stunning light lyric sonority. His lover, the sickly seamstress Mimi, was beautifully performed last night by Irish soprano Sinead Campbell-Wallace. Her voice has a wonderful clarity of tone and sense of dynamic control; but although Campbell-Wallace inhabits the role’s epic despair very affectingly, the pair don’t make the most obvious romantic couple with a lack of chemistry in the early scenes; however, by Act 3’s wonderful reconciliation duet, their voices soared and the connection between them was more convincing.
There was immediate and electric tension between the second couple, artist Marcello Anglo-French baritone Charles Rice, and the coquettish Musetta, with British soprano Louise Alder in fetching bright pink heels. Conductor Ben Glassberg wisely lets her stretch the phrasing in the keynote Act 2 aria ‘Musetta’s Waltz’ bringing a sultry seductiveness to the part as she publicly seduces Marcello. Charles Rice was on top form from the very opening bringing his powerful baritone to the role.
The hapless landlord Benoit (who sings ‘I’m sixty but I’m sexy’ in the late Amanda Holden’s snappy and witty translation) and Musetta’s elderly admirer Alcindoro, are both played by an ENO favourite, bass Simon Butteriss. He brings a comedic physicality to both parts that create an amusing hybrid of Sir Alan Sugar and Groucho Marx. Harewood Artists bass William Thomas brings a gravitas to the philosopher Colline.
Conductor Ben Glassberg is Britain’s rising star conductor who is being tipped as a contender for the hot seat as the next ENO musical director. He brought out the exquisite detail in Puccini’s orchestration bringing out the ‘tinta’ or brightness as well as managing the emotional climaxes brilliantly. I’m a big fan of the ENO orchestra and chorus and with the singers thrillingly full-voiced in the street scenes and the orchestra at full throttle this was an immersive and engaging sonic experience.
La Bohème is a beguiling mix of grand passion and low comedy blended with a remarkably sophisticated take on gender politics – in the end, it is the ‘flighty’ Musetta who is the only adult in the room. And as for the men they just need to grow up! With the solid foundation of Miller’s production, at its best in the crowd scenes which buzz with a vibrancy and energy rarely seen on an opera stage, and Puccini’s ravishing score, this is a terrific La Bohème. It’s as suitable for the opera novice and younger audiences as for the more traditional ENO audience. With tickets from £10 upwards it is accessible to all.
7 Evening Performances Remaining 04 10 12 19 23 25 27 Feb
4 Matinee Performances Remaining 05 12 19 27 Feb
Running Time 2hrs 10mins
English National Opera, London Coliseum, St Martin’s Lane, London WC2N 4ES
Looking for something different? Check our review of Theodora at The Royal Opera House