First performed in 2009, Jonathan Miller’s production of La bohème moves the action from its original 1830s setting to depression soaked Paris a century later. Whereas John Copley’s 1974 Royal Opera production – most recently revived last December – allows its audience to connect with its themes of poverty and love, even though the characters seem to exist largely in another time and place, here, in contrast, we connect with the characters themselves, thanks to the production’s attention to detail, both in terms of characterisation and setting.
Isabella Bywater’s generally effective design turns Rodolfo and Marcello’s abode into a flat within a larger set of buildings, so that the first and last acts take place high above the stage. The characters also use a staircase to leave the flat, rather than simply disappearing from view when they pass through the front door, which adds further context to their situation. It does, however, mean that certain lines that were originally designed to be sung from off-stage are now uttered upon it, despite Puccini’s directions being fairly prescriptive in this respect.
When the set spins around to reveal the Café Momus, we are confronted with a Christmas card scene of people selling their wares and playing in the snow. Yet even here, the setting is never overly romanticised, the mise en scene recalling the grittier images of Brassaï and Cartier-Bresson, with large photographs of Parisian ‘slums’ surrounding the stage as a stark reminder of what poverty really means.
The sense of period is also aided by some superb ensemble playing. The scene in which the four principal men boot their landlord, Benoit (Simon Butteriss), out without the rent, is one of many slickly comic moments. With the threat of his infidelities being revealed to his wife, Benoit is thrown down the stairs before the men form an angelic chorus to wish his wife a ‘Merry Christmas’ and send him scurrying on his way.
That said, this is is not one of Amanda Holden’s more successful translations – and it may ultimately be the case that La bohème is a particularly difficult opera in which to fit English words and syllables to the original lines of music. There are also times when the greyness of the design, designed to evoke poverty, becomes a bit unrelenting. The scenes set in the flat see the action squeezed into one quarter of the stage, a choice which impacts on the atmosphere of the production. Similarly, after a strong start, the Café Momus scene does not take off as well as it might and Musettas’s iconic aria, ‘Quando me’n vo’, is staged comically but without riotous energy. This is, however, no reflection on the soprano Angel Blue, making her ENO debut, who displays real talent and presence.
The cast as a whole are strong, with Duncan Rock, an ENO Harewood Artist, particularly good value as Schaunard, with his irreverent persona and pleasing bartione voice. It is, however, Gwyn Hughes Jones as Rodolfo and Kate Valentine as Mimì who really stand out, both throwing their heart and soul into their performances. Hughes Jones has an expansive tone that combines lightness with strength while Valentine, also a Harewood Artist, asserts a clear, yet rich and resonant, sound. Oleg Caetani conducts with a precision that enables the various hues in Puccini’s enigmatic score to come to the fore, although just occasionally his meticulous approach, though far from passionless, fails to capture the sweeping nature of the music.
Alexander Ingram conducts all performances from 16 May onwards.