Jonathan Miller’s production of Puccini’s La bohème returns to ENO

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

Mimì – Sinéad Campbell-Wallace
Rodolfo – David Junghoon Kim
Marcello – Charles Rice
Musetta – Louise Alder
Colline – William Thomas
Schaunard – Benson Wilson
Benoit/Alcindoro – Simon Butteriss

Chorus & Orchestra of English National Opera
Ben Glassberg

Jonathan Miller – Director
Crispin Lord – Revival Director
Isabella Bywater – Designer
Jean Kalman – Lighting Designer
Martin Doone – Revival Lighting Designer

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 31 January, 2022
Venue: London Coliseum

Jonathan Miller died in 2019, but his productions are still in English National Opera’s core repertory. In 2009, the opera world was surprised when, after a gap of twelve years, Miller returned to ENO with his 1930s’ take on Puccini’s indestructible tear-jerker, with a look based on the monochrome images of Paris by night photographed by Brassaï, complemented by Isabella Bywater’s faithfully reproduced between-the-wars clothes and a set skillfully adaptable to the four struggling artists’ garret-atelier, a down-at-heel Café Momus and a particularly bleak back-street setting for Act Three. Jean Kalman’s lighting (revived by Martin Doone) defies colour, even in the Café Momus Act, so don’t expect an outburst of Quality Street brilliance at this point. The Christmas Eve jollity is busy but soberly lit, and not so good when you need to see at least some of the detail of, for example, Mimí’s and Rodolfo’s first meeting. This revival is its fifth (directed by Crispin Lord), so it hasn’t been displaced by Benedict Andrews’s infamous drug-fuelled staging of 2015 that has not so far been revived.

Any Bohème has to be defined by the two leads, and David Junghoon Kim and Sinéad Campbell-Wallace sing beautifully. Kim’s easy and warm tenor rings out, swoons and soars with unabashed Italian style. And he might well have been singing in Italian for all that you could hear of the libretto translation by Amanda Holden (who died last year). And then he was not the most involving actor, safely leaving any impulsive, reckless ardour and gradation of emotion to his voice. The role of Mimì, the quickly fading tubercular flower, is also a huge sing, and Sinéad Campbell-Wallace, in her ENO debut, rose to the occasion magnificently, her generous lyric soprano sustaining its quality soft, loud and high, and with attention to the words. However, her acting didn’t convey that feverish, terminal glitter, nor the fact, laid out in Act Three, of Mimì in denial about then suddenly aware of her impending death – she slid over the impact of ‘O mia vita’ as though it wasn’t there. She toned things down for Act Four, but it was not clear, vocally or dramatically, how she had got to this point. Campbell-Wallace is tall and healthy-looking, and the dynamic of her and Rodolfo’s burgeoning love was blurred, almost to the point of her taking charge of the seduction, which diminished Mimì as a foil to the more brazen Musetta. This Mimì is not a meek and mild invalid.

As a result, the evening relied more on the fine Marcello and Musetta from Charles Rice and Louise Alder, who gave the tragedy the ring of truth, both revealed and camouflaged by their explosive relationship. Alder took charge of her Café Momus waltz with imperious ease, considerable humour and some impressive coloratura, while in Act Three Rice’s immensely likeable Marcello in fine acting and singing painfully got to the heart of the misery Mimì and Rodolfo are inflicting on each other – they can’t live with or without each other. Rice naturally took charge of the artist household, backed up William Thomas’s Colline and Benson Wilson’s Schaunard, both strongly characterised and sung.

The other major factor is the revelatory conducting of Ben Glassberg and the response he got from the ENO Orchestra. Glassberg allowed the music to settle and thrive and made Puccini’s brilliantly organised score tell the story like reading a book. The sounds he drew for the opening to Rodolfo’s ‘O soave fanciulla’ – all depth and glow – was just one instance of having the illusion of hearing the opera for the first time.

Twelve further performances until February 27

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