The current revival of La bohème at English National Opera is being dedicated to the original director, Steven Pimlott, who sadly died of cancer last week at the age of 53. At the beginning of the performance on the first night, the Director of the National Theatre, Nicholas Hytner, gave a touching speech in memory of his friend and colleague. Unfortunately, what followed was a routine performance of a rather uninspired production.
This is perhaps not Pimlott’s finest work and it’s hard to understand why ENO is still presenting it, now in its sixth revival over a 14 year period. The staging doesn’t do justice to Puccini’s work, with the same set running through the four acts and a blandness overall that never rises above the mundane. In a work that is so much about poetry, this is a serious shortcoming.
A part of the problem is in Jeremy Sams’ translation which, like much of the production, is tentative in its modernisms and quite often grates in its attempts to entertain. It’s not quite witty but tries to interject colloquialisms into situations that cry out for a sense of period style. This is an opera that really suffers in translation anyway and it’s not helped by this approach.
The settings and costumes follow suit, failing to replace the familiar 19th Century details with anything substantial. With the same basic set used throughout, we are never convinced that we are in a Paris street or at a customs crossing and the bare clean walls at the back of the set take away from the atmosphere of the garret.
The singing varies in quality and overall is good rather than great. Peter Auty as Rodolfo is weak and quite inaudible to begin with, which is unfortunate as his big aria comes early on. His performance grows as the acts progress, though, and he’s making some good sounds by Act 3 and is quite moving in Act 4. Better are the bass/baritones, with strong singing from Matthew Rose as Colline and Iain Paterson as Schaunard. Mark Stone is particularly good as Marcello, if his acting is a little too earnest at times.
Returning to the role of Mimì is Mary Plazas, who sings well, although her characterisation often gets lost in the fussy staging that surrounds her. Giselle Allen is a Musetta who struggles to be vampish but brings a touching quality to her later, less flamboyant scenes.
What saves the day is the orchestral playing under the baton of Xian Zhang, Associate Conductor of the New York Philharmonic, here making her ENO debut. The playing is warm and well-articulated, bringing out the many colours of Puccini’s score. If what is going on onstage is often quite unwatchable, you can sit back and enjoy the sumptuous sounds from the pit. Zhang draws every ounce of drama from the final scene.
So, not a great evening, but this is an opera that can almost not fail on some level. I found myself nearly won over by the end, but ultimately left somewhat unsatisfied.