English National Opera – La bohème

La bohème – Opera in four acts to a libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa & Liugi Illica after Henri Murger’s novel Scènes de la vie de bohème [sung in an English translation by Amanda Holden, with English surtitles]

Marcello – Roland Wood
Rodolfo – Gwyn Hughes Jones
Colline – Pauls Putninš
Schaunard – George von Bergen
Benoit – Simon Butteriss
Mimì – Elizabeth Llewellyn
Musetta – Mairéad Buicke
Alcindoro – Richard Angas
Parpignol – Philip Daggett
Policeman – Christopher Ross
Foreman – Andrew Tinkler

Chorus & Orchestra of English National Opera
Stephen Lord

Jonathan Miller – Director
Isabella Bywater – Designs
Jean Kalman – Lighting design

Reviewed by: Kevin Rogers

Reviewed: 18 October, 2010
Venue: The Coliseum, London

Act Three of La bohème (ENO, Oct 2010). Photograph: Robert WorkmanAs has been the case with his recent other operatic revivals for English National Opera and The Royal Opera, Jonathan Miller, now 76 years old, was on-hand to direct this first revival of his “La bohème”, with mixed results. The friendship – for this opera is about the rocky road that friendship can be – of the four young men was apparent, and he had them pillow-fighting appropriately enough. But other moments suffered from egregious oversights: Mimì was able to retrieve her coat from her room on the way to the cafe Momus even though she had ‘lost’ her key in Rodolfo’s garret; Mimì overhearing Rodolfo explaining to Marcello her fatal health condition was cack-handed; and Rodolfo, being seated next to Mimì when she dies and not noticing stretched incredulity.

Mairéad Buicke as Musetta (La bohème, ENO, Oct 2010). Photograph: Robert WorkmanIsabella Bywater’s designs are attractively realistic, inspired by the 1930s Depression-era photographs of Cartier-Bresson and, especially, Brassaï (pseudonym of Gyula Halász), who, tutored by his fellow Hungarian André Kertész, lived in Paris from 1924 until his death in 1984. His first collection of photographs (published in 1934 as “Paris de nuit”) dated from 1933, and was notable for his depictions of prostitutes, cafés, as well as high-society girls. Much of this was has inspired the costumes and traits on display here, especially Musetta. The four Bohemian friends were like any others that might be spotted in a production of this opera. What was apparent, and this is where Miller’s influence plays its part, was the cinematic realism that the staging possesses.

Of the music, this was similarly mixed. Stephen Lord’s way with the score was too driven, with the tender moments sapped of either their charm or emotion. It was frequently over-rushed, and there was not enough variation in volume, or sufficient lingering on moments where feelings needed to be explored. Only the final outburst (when Rodolfo realises Mimì’s demise) caught the necessary mood, but that was too little too late.

Elizabeth Llewellyn as Mimì & Gwyn Hughes Jones as Rodolfo (La bohème, ENO, Oct 2010). Photograph: Robert WorkmanThe casting of the principal roles is uneven, and only mostly adequate, with the smaller roles the ones sticking in the mind. Pauls Putninš’s ‘overcoat aria’ was touchingly sung (his textured bass deserves bigger parts, and is subtlety recognisable), and Simon Butteriss’s Benoit (the Bohemians’ landlord) was a fun cameo. Problems with staging meant that George von Bergen’s Schaunard was forgettable, but Richard Angas and Philip Daggett had fun as the haughty Alcindoro and toy-maker Parpignol, respectively. The Musetta of Mairéad Buicke was a nervous creation – lacking the necessary coquettishness – but was a pleasure to hear. Her admirer Marcello was sung confidently by Roland Wood, but he was not allowed to enjoy much in Acts One or Two.

The two leads were sung assertively by Gwyn Hughes Jones (Rodolfo) and, new to the part and ENO, Elizabeth Llewellyn (Mimì). Hughes Jones possesses a voice with plenty of heft, and he was able to exploit the role’s many facets – confidence, happiness, sorrow amongst them – along with a clear account of Amanda Holden’s witty, down-to-earth translation of the libretto, although there were occasional difficulties when competing with the orchestra at full volume. Llewellyn’s Mimì was mixed: for sure hers is a dramatic soprano – with plenty of preparation she may become more suited to heavier roles – and the timidness of her acting was apt, but her diction left much to be desired: maybe first-night nerves played heavy here.

There was a lot that should have worked here, and the staging itself has a lot going for it. But this tale of friendship, and the hardships that often afflict and test it, almost to destruction, was sapped of its heart by poor characterisation and a bombastic orchestral contribution.

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