United Kingdom Puccini, La bohème: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the English National Opera / Alexander Joel (conductor). London Coliseum, 26.11.2018. (JPr)
Mimì – Natalya Romaniw
Rodolfo – Jonathan Tetelman
Marcello – Nicholas Lester
Musetta – Nadine Benjamin
Colline – David Soar
Schaunard – Božidar Smiljanic
Benoît/Alcindoro – Simon Butteriss
Director – Jonathan Miller
Revival director – Natascha Metherell
Designer – Isabella Bywater
Revival Lighting designer – Kevin Sleep
Translation – Amanda Holden
There was a misguided attempt in 2015 (review click here) to retire Jonathan Miller’s crowd-pleasing 2009 La bohème and I posited then whether it could be ‘resurrected’. It is a pleasure to report it is now back for its fourth revival and – thanks to revival director Natascha Metherell – seemingly better than ever! It celebrates the fortieth year since Dr Miller made his directorial debut with English National Opera. I repeat what I have written before how in 2009 he stated how ‘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.’ I haven’t really changed my opinion since 2009 that what we see is neither ‘seedy, hedonistic or drug-fuelled enough to be associated with this slice of life in late 1960s London’. Benedict Andrews tried that in 2015 … and failed miserably!
There was an appeal from ENO’s Chief Executive for donations toward the current ‘Match Campaign’ for the Harewood Artist programme: four of their current singers are involved in the extended run of 15 La bohème performances. Hopefully it is not a ‘false dawn’ but the slumbering ENO giant finally appears to be stirring again and as the evening went on it was clear that the soloists, chorus and orchestra were performing again as if their life – or at least livelihoods – depended on it.
We are definitely not in London but in early 1930s Paris with photos of the city’s demi-monde by Gyula Halász (alias Brassaï) dominating the programme and these were the inspiration for Isabelle Bywater’s two split-level revolving sets. Together with period-appropriate costumes and subtle lighting changes – frequently giving everything a monochrome palette – Dr Miller brings quasi-cinematic realism to the lives of the bohemians, their poverty and Mimì’s suffering. There are compromises of course and having the flatmates in their loft above Café Momus has always restricted what they can get up to. When they perform the high jinks of their Act IV pas de quatre there is little room for it. There is one bed and little other furniture, yet for some reason we can see into the bathroom stage right. On the plus side, I always find seeing the comings and goings of Marcello, Colline, Schaunard, Mimì, Musetta and Benoît, up and down some external stairs, gives filmic continuity to the action rarely seen in other La bohème productions. Again for Act II at the Café Momus – with all its hustle and bustle of a Parisian Christmas Eve – there is a little too much going on in the restricted space at the front of the stage, but this didn’t seem to matter so much as before.
However the final two acts continue to work very well and Act III’s snowy street scene – underscored as it is by Puccini’s genius – brought to vivid life the messy love lives of Rodolfo, Mimì, Marcello and Musetta. As hinted at earlier everyone was on top of each other once more in the cramped garret for Act IV; though I found I was again caring less about this than previously as the opera reached its tragic conclusion. We all know how La bohème ends but it is to Jonathan Miller’s great credit that Mimì’s death – and the bohemians’ reaction to it – is so genuine and truthful.
Rodolfo – thanks to Jonathan Tetelman – was more of a confidently romantic jack-the-lad than he has seemed before in this production. We see him discreetly pocket Mimì’s key whilst she remains the experienced ‘older woman’ whose charms many eager students have taken advantage of over the years. Despite Dr Miller’s judicious power cut that explains Mimì’s candle, Puccini does have them fall in love rather quickly, but this is opera after all. Tetelman had an ardent Italianate sound though his voice was a little small for the vast London Coliseum. His ringing top will raise the roof of smaller theatres, but he must take care not too force his voice too much. Perversely Tetelman relaxed somewhat vocally as the evening progressed, despite showing his character clearly becoming more emotionally conflicted. He was at his absolute best in the Act III farewell duet and quartet, as well as, his final agonizing cries of ‘Mimì’. Natalya Romaniw overpowered her Rodolfo at times, yet all the praise you can read elsewhere about this fine singer is thoroughly deserved based on this heartfelt performance. She has a rather fuller soprano sound than the role probably requires and despite the odd cough Romaniw was never convincingly frail enough – like many Mimìs – for her deeply moving early demise. As is frequently the case there was more coughing from the audience than from her Mimì!
There was tremendous support both in voice and personality from Nicholas Lester’s Marcello, David Soar’s Colline (his ‘Coat Aria’ was wonderful sonorously) and Harewood Artist Božidar Smiljanic’s Schaunard. All three gave charismatic, nuanced and totally committed performances. Another Harewood Artist, Nadine Benjamin, was the chanteuse-like Musetta and was trying too hard to please on this first night and will probably relax more into her role as time goes on. What is not in doubt is the wonderful potential there is in her voice, not only for Puccini and Verdi, but dare I mention, Wagner later in her career should she wish it. ENO’s Chorus and the children (from Tiffin School) were excellent and as good as you will hear anywhere. Simon Butteriss completed the principal soloists and was on comical double duty as Benoît and Alcindoro. His Benoît – Rodolfo and Marcello’s lascivious landlord – might have been a scene-stealing tour de force had not those around him been such good actors too.
The success of this La bohème was due to the very well-prepared cast and also Amanda Holden’s frequently witty translation that was suitably respectful of the original libretto. Things were so compelling on stage that it was easy to overlook what was happening in the pit, yet the ENO Orchestra were excellent under the experienced baton of Alexander Joel. He conducted vigorously and relished every moment of the conviction, tenderness and ‘heart-on-the-sleeve’ emotions of Puccini’s score.
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