The first performance of Jonathan Miller’s new production of La bohème for English National Opera was cancelled due to inclement weather. Normally, it would seem churlish to mention this, only it says something about how our own times differ to those of the opera’s protagonists.
Whilst we can stay at home in the warm when the going gets tough, no such option was open to Rodolfo, Marcello and Mimi in 1930s Paris where Miller sets the drama. The point is particularly resonant because to Miller updating the opera by a century meant more than simply making the costumes and scenery 1930s in style.
And Miller succeeds in making this production feel relevant to us. John Copley’s 1974 Covent Garden production, most recently revived in October 2008, allows us to relate to the concepts of poverty and love, but the characters seem to exist largely in another time and place. Here, in contrast, we relate to the people themselves, thanks to the attention to detail paid both to the characterisations and the setting that the individuals inhabit.
In Isabella Bywater’s highly effective set, Rodolfo and Marcello’s abode becomes a first floor 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 off-stage, which adds further context to their situation.
When the set spins around to reveal Café Momus, we are confronted with a Christmas card scene of people selling their wares and playing in the snow. Even here, however, the setting is never overly romanticised, and large photographs of Paris ‘slums’ surround the stage as a stark reminder of what poverty really means.
The sense of period is also aided by some superb ensemble playing. When the four principal men boot their landlord, Benoit (Simon Butteriss) out without the rent, we witness just one of many slick comic moments in the production. 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.
Roland Wood had a powerful voice as Marcello, and his overbearing physique worked well, betraying his (presumably) well-to-do background, his liking still for dining out, and his tendency to live on his wits. Whilst, however, Pauls Putnins as Colline and David Stout as Schaunard, matched him in strength vocally, the same could not be said for Alfie Boe as Rodolfo. Though arguably the best actor, and certainly the most waif-like of the four, his tonally pleasing voice lacked sufficient strength to pull off the role.
The disparity between his abilities and those of Melody Moore as Mimi became apparent in their duet in the first act. Boe’s more naturalistic acting contrasted poorly with Moore’s richer voice, but more stylised gestures, and it was only in the third and fourth acts that we felt anything at all for the couple.
With the exception of Boe, the singing was good on its level, but that level was not world class. This is no slur against the relatively young cast who have had notable successes at other opera houses, and three of which (Moore, Putnins and Hanan Alattar as Musetta) were making their ENO débuts.
Nevertheless, when the production as a whole was designed to exude a dull hue anyway (to make the poverty seem real) the lack of ethereal singing made the production feel too grey. Far from grey, however, was the conducting of Miguel Harth-Bedoya who elicited passion and intensity from the orchestra, whilst still maintaining a rounded and controlled sound.
Miller’s La bohème has bags of potential, which on the night was only partially realised. The concept and staging were strong, the orchestra was on top form and the cast worked well as an ensemble. In the face of this, it might seem petty to criticise the singing, but the standard of it failed to drive home a production that in all others respects had been set up well.
It is true that the insertion of the wrong world class names could destroy the ensemble coherence that was fully realised here. Nevertheless, I was left wondering that if the production could be as good as it was with its present cast, what might be achieved with the insertion of some higher calibre names.