ENO’s La bohème is a Modern Masterpiece

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Puccini, La bohème: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of English National Opera / Oleg Caetani (conductor), London Coliseum, 4.5.2013. (JPr)

Rodolfo: Gwyn Hughes Jones
Mimì: Kate Valentine
Marcello: Richard Burkhard
Musetta: Angel Blue
Colline: Andrew Craig Brown
Schaunard: Duncan Rock
Benoît and Alcindoro: Simon Butteriss

Original Director: Jonathan Miller
Revival Director: Natascha Metherell
Designer: Isabella Bywater
Original Lighting Designer: Jean Kalman
Translator: Amanda Holden

This is what all nights at English National Opera should be like and I am lost for words, though of course I will find some, as I have very little to add beyond the simple fact – good enough on its own – that it was a great evening both for grizzled Coliseum veterans like me or those wanting to go to an opera for the first time. This is already the third time that I have seen Jonathan Miller’s 2009 production that I think is a modern masterpiece. When I saw it before it had Alfie Boe as Rodolfo, but now he has given up on opera – or opera has given up on him – the staging reaches another level because of a very talented new mostly British cast, and the vastly experienced Oleg Caetani in the pit.

When originally first staged Sir Jonathan Miller’s words seemed to come back and haunt him a little. He had said: ‘Puccini’s operas are really rather like movies, and La bohème is the most natural and believable of them all. I want to make it as much like a movie as it could possibly be. I’m basing the artists’ relationship on the movie Withnail and I – shabby, upper class boys who think squalor is very romantic.’ For me, the result never seemed that seedy, hedonistic or drug-fuelled enough to be associated with a slice of life in late 1960s London. Truthfully Paris still doesn’t really seem to reveal sufficient squalor, so I feel a better description of the bohemians are that they are students on a gap year. We know Rodolfo has a rich uncle and is probably only a letter away from getting the money he needs to support himself. Although the production is credited to a revival director, Natascha Metherell, there is evidence that Miller came to rehearsals himself and together these two have worked some wonders with this staging to raise the performance level of the principals to a higher level than I saw before.

In collusion with a frequent collaborator, designer Isabella Bywater, there is an attempt at cinematic realism with the action updated to Paris of the early 1930s. The city’s demi-monde was photographed by Cartier-Bresson, Kertesz and Gyula Halász (alias Brassaï); some of the latter photos are reprinted in the programme and were clearly the biggest inspiration for Bywater’s sets and costumes. There is even a slightly monochrome look to the proceedings (revival lighting by Kevin Sleep) which is very appropriate if we consider these photographic influences. There is a flexible – and reassuringly solid – two-part split level set that revolves to make it appear as if the flatmates are living in a loft above the Café Momus. It is a single room with only one bed, the room is connected to a bathroom and there are stairs down to Mimì’s apartment. We can see all the comings and goings of Marcello, Colline, Schaunard, Benoit, Mimì and Musetta as well as Rodolfo seeming to urinate! Perhaps it was because I was sitting closer to the stage than before, I really felt I was being totally drawn into the intimate world of the bohemians and witnessing a slice of real life.

In hindsight Miller and Bywater might have made the ‘garret’ a little less cramped. There is a sink, a couple of desks, the bed, an armchair and, of course, the stove for the ritualistic burning Rodolfo’s manuscript. Though if Jonathan Miller is trying to show us how claustrophobic the group’s life is, then he does a good job, though I am not entirely sure whether we are to believe Colline and Schaunard live there, in addition to Rodolfo and Marcello. I accept this is mere nit-picking, as is my feeling that for the Café Momus scene there is also still too much going on in a very restricted space towards the apron of the stage. Sitting in the stalls I often didn’t know where to look initially, because of all the children, the marching band and Parpignol (Philip Daggett as Charlie Chaplin) parading across the footlights and blocking my view.

Act III works well with the requisite snowy scene and freezing workers trudging miserably onward and we also see ‘working women’ on the street corner plying their trade. For Act IV everyone was on top of each other again, particularly for the bohemians’ boisterous shenanigans with French sticks and pillows and for the familiar sad and very emotional denouement.

The principals have been asked to eschew grand operatic gestures for much psychological detail. Though probably lost to those at the back of the Balcony, Rodolfo’s antics with the lost key were very natural and I have never before seen either him or Mimì so attentive while they respectively recount their life stories. Rodolfo still is a very nervous and far-from-romantic figure, ardent yes, but possibly sexually inexperienced. Mimì is probably the experienced ‘older woman’ that most students throughout history have wanted to encounter. Even the coquettish Musetta seems to play up Rodolfo’s innocence by aiming more to embarrass him with her song than trying to rekindle Marcello’s passion. She is something of a Josephine Baker-like creation here and evidently an equally popular figure considering the autographs she has to sign. This revival now has most of the drama I’d missed before and I was totally engaged with the joie de vivre, idealism, passions and fatalism of Puccini’s characters.

Perhaps it needed an experienced Italian conductor like Oleg Caetani (who was once going to be ENO’s music director) to make Puccini’s already colourful score even more vibrant and nuanced. With the orchestra sounding on top form, Caetani seemed to have an instinctive ear for pace and their account was well-shaped and atmospheric with thankfully little by way of cloying sentimentality. The chorus and the children were excellent in their brief appearance.

For me, the always entertaining Simon Butteriss overacted a bit too much as the landlord and Musetta’s cuckolded companion, Alcindoro, because these characters are not that important. ENO Harewood Artist Duncan Rock’s Schaunard was at his best in the ensemble moments and he has a pleasing baritone. As Colline, the philosopher, Andrew Craig Brown used his eloquent bass voice tenderly in a better-than-some interpretation of his ‘Coat Aria’ when he sells his old overcoat/friend to buy medicine for the dying Mimì. I thought Richard Burkhard’s robustly sung Marcello was a star turn and totally believable in his jealousy over Musetta; he sang throughout with warmth and vigour. As his inamorata, the delightfully named Angel Blue (from California) was very appealing as a glamorous ‘tart with a heart’, though if she hasn’t sung Mimì yet her expansive soprano voice suggests she might very soon.

As Rodolfo, Gwyn Hughes Jones displayed his firmly supported lyrical voice and elegant legato, he sang with evident artistry and appealing colour but I was a little surprised how easily he was overwhelmed by orchestra. This was especially disappointing at the end of the opera when he must call out in despair at Mimì’s death. Kate Valentine, another ENO Harewood Artist, was that seamstress, often singing tenderly with limpid tones. Her Mimì was appealing, romantic, wilful and deeply moving by turns. Surprisingly Dr Miller with all his medical background fails to give her a realistic illness, although I am sure he would argue otherwise. She never seems frail or consumptive enough for such an early death and barely coughs more than a few times throughout the evening. If it wasn’t for the great sigh heard from the orchestra, she could easily have fallen asleep in the armchair and not passed away.

Finally, I’m increasingly wondering whether English National Opera still really needs to perform something as recognisable as La bohème in English. If it must then Amanda Holden’s translation does its best to match the original libretto Puccini set to music, even if some words are stretched out uncomfortably for my ears at times. It has a rhyming couplet style – Rodolfo sings at one point: ‘I’m poor but I’m contented, this is the life I treasure, writing poems for pleasure. In dreams or flights of fancy and castles in the air, I am a multi-millionaire.’ It was clear this continues to be a work in progress as the surtitles showed that some consonants had been replaced by the singers using more Puccini-friendly vowel sounds.

Jim Pritchard