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]

Marcello – Roland Wood
Rodolfo – Alfie Boe
Colline – Pauls Putninš
Schaunard – David Stout
Benoit – Simon Butteriss
Mimi – Melody Moore
Musetta – Hanan Alattar
Alcindoro – Richard Angas
Parpignol – Philip Daggett
Policeman – Christopher Ross
Foreman – Andrew Tinkler

Chorus & Orchestra of English National Opera
Miguel Harth-Bedoya

Jonathan Miller – Director
David Ritch – Associate Director
Isabella Bywater – Designs
Jean Kalman – Lighting design

Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell

Reviewed: 13 February, 2009
Venue: The Coliseum, London

The first night (on 2 February) of this new staging, a co-production with Cincinnati Opera, had to be cancelled because of the heavy snowfall that paralysed London. This was therefore the fourth performance and, truth be told, it did not quite catch fire.

Alfie Bow as Rodolfo, David Stout as Schaunard, Roland Wood as Marcello & Pauls Putninš as Colline. Photograph: Tristram KentonAs the curtain rose the atmospheric designs by Isabella Bywater certainly caught the eye and the back and top lighting was certainly atmospheric – even if one sometimes wanted to see a little more light on the characters’ faces. The scenic transformations from Act One to Two and then from Three to Four also worked extremely well. I am not sure if seeming the staircase up to the Bohemians’ flat really worked. It was a nice to be able to see the impending arrival of characters, and touching to see Schaunard sitting there lost in reverie in Act Four having left alone Rodolfo and the dying Mimi. However, it detracted from the shock of Musetta’s bursting-in to bring the tragedy to its conclusion; getting the collapsed Mimi up the stairs then had to be visible, too, and that was unconvincing. The bar setting of Act Three was nicely observed, although there was no sense of an access-controlled city gate, which made the opening moments rather confused.

Jonathan Miller had updated the action to the 1930s which in terms of design and costuming was absolutely fine, but the bohemians and Mimi all seemed to be a bit too sophisticated and knowingly mature in their emotional responses. Surely half of the point of “La bohème” is that it was one of the first operas to successfully portray life for those on the margins of poverty. True, a hint of the depressing and relentless pressures of eking out an existence must be there, and one needs to feel the four students are coping with that through high spirits and humour. Here their collective depression was all too present from the start; and these four students are not a terribly lively bunch; it was curious that their antics in Act Four had more life than in Act One. And there’s more to depicting student life than the blokes constantly running off to have a pee!

Philip Daggett as Parpignol. Photograph: Tristram KentonAct Two should bring some light relief and show the variety of life outside – this suffered from being a bit staid and the chorus’s movement is over-choreographed and predictable. Throughout the evening a lightness of touch was desperately needed at times just to provide the contrast and relief. Miller’s direction suited the tragic moments better, and the sheer unhappiness of Rodolfo and Mimi in Act Three was captured very well indeed – they sang their duet standing close but not together until the final moments.

“La bohème” generally works best with a youngish cast, but some of the principal roles need some vocal heft and experience, too, especially in a house as large as The Coliseum. Roland Wood’s Marcello was more serious-minded than most and, at times, positively dour. He sang well with a solid and sturdy baritone. Pauls Putninš was a serious Colline and has a nice gravely bass – he sang his ‘overcoat aria’ well. David Stout’s Schaunard was more genial and mercurial than others have been and he certainly did not feel like “the other one”. He managed to get more of the words of Amanda Holden’s witty and sympathetic translation. However, the pompous Alcindoro of Richard Angas and the tetchy Benoit of Simon Butteriss, were both particularly telling cameos.

Alfie Bow as Rodolfo & Melody Moore as Mimi. Photograph: Tristram KentonAlfie Boe as Rodolfo was not as extrovert as anticipated. Although his voice has a nice lyrical quality to it, and is admirably clear, it needs more heft and body for this large auditorium. At times he did not cut through the orchestra textures and sounded a little puny. As Mimi Melody Moore had a bit more of the required power and control above the stave, even if her tone is not always ideally ingratiating. She was more affecting in the final acts than at the start, and made much of the outburst in Act Four when the lovers are finally left alone. However, the relationship of these two can surely have more tenderness than these singers were allowed (or able) to bring to it – there seemed to be little physical chemistry and attraction.

Both singers seemed to suffer from the generally leisurely tempos adopted by Miguel Harth-Bedoya. Speeds were rather measured to start with and it seemed that as each ‘famous’ passage approached that they slowed further. No problems though with Puccini’s colours and mood-setting, all of which were well judged. Occasionally the dynamics were over-loud. The other singer who suffered from Harth-Bedoya’s over-indulgent approach, and Miller’s tight rein, was Hanan Alattar as Musetta who was hardly allowed to shine or dominate the Café Momus scene. Musetta should burst-in like a great blast of fresh air and barnstorm her way though it. More force and brilliance of voice, personality and spontaneity was needed to provide the dramatic counterpoint to the acts either side.

Overall this was a perfectly respectable performance but with few dramatic insights and charged moments; as if there had been too much rehearsal, the cast not allowed the freedom to fly artistically.

  • Further performances at 7.30 p.m. on February 15 (matinee), 19, 21 (6.30), 24 & 27 February and March 4, 6 & 8 (matinee)
  • Performances on February 19 & 21 conducted by Martin Fitzpatrick
  • Box Office 0871 472 0600
  • English National Opera

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