It is not often in La bohème that the Benoît and Alcindoro are billed higher than those taking the more major roles of Musetta, Colline and Schaunard. One can certainly understand though why the English National Opera website should give such prominence to Andrew Shore in its description of this production. He is one of the best actors on the operatic stage today, and his contributions to Acts I and II certainly help the third revival of Jonathan Miller’s 2009 production, on this occasion directed by Natascha Metherell, to go with a swing.
The evening was marked by strong characterisation across the board and an excellent ensemble dynamic. Miller moves the action from its original 1830s setting to depression soaked Paris a century later, and it is an approach that makes the drama feel highly relevant to us today. John Copley’s 1974 Royal Opera production, which will be revived for the final time next year, 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 associate with 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 generally 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 from view when they pass through the front door, which adds further context to their situation.
When the production first appeared, the generally monochrome sets were criticised for making everything feel just a little too grey, even though that was largely the point. There is, however, never a risk of dullness when the performances that fill the space are as dynamic as they are here. For example, when the four principal men boot Shore’s Benoît out without the rent, we witness just one of many slick comic moments. With the threat of his infidelities being revealed to his wife, the landlord 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.
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, since the visuals equally recall the grittier images of Brassaï and Cartier-Bresson, with large photographs of Parisian ‘slums’ surrounding the stage as a stark reminder of what poverty really means.
The range of characters to be found here is delineated even more strongly perhaps than in Copley’s iconic production, as alongside the children and street-sellers there are mime artists, total alcoholics and lesbian lovers. In the past I have found that following an exuberent opening, the scene dies down rather too much for ‘Quando me’n vo’ but on this occasion the problem is mollified by the principals bringing their characters out so strongly. Musetta begins the aria lodged between an amused Colline and Schaunard and then works her way ever closer towards the disgruntled Marcello. All the while Alcindoro frantically yaps away, before Shore’s entertaining routine with the ‘offending’ shoe brings the house down.
From among the strong cast, the performance of Angel Blue, making her ENO role debut as Mimì after playing Musetta in the previous revival, stands out. Her soprano is just a shade darker than that to be found in most Mimìs, and that proves to be all to the good. Her sound, especially in the upper register, is rich, full-blooded and beautifully accurate. Her self-assurance on stage paradoxically makes her feel so natural that we can genuinely believe in Mimì’s sensitivity and frailty. Indeed, Blue’s approach to the part proves effective at marrying Puccini’s ethereal score with the story that it tells of destitution and poverty.
David Butt Philip initially seems possessed of quite a slender tenor instrument, but from the start he uses it to pleasing effect. Then as his voice opens out he captures the soaring phrases in ‘Che gelida manina’ with a beautifully full and appealing tone that never sacrifices accuracy in the pursuit of volume. The stormy relationship of George von Bergen’s Marcello and Jennifer Holloway’s Musetta is rendered dynamically enough, but, to the performers’ credit, not quite as hyperbolically as in some productions. Rather, the focus here is on detail so that we see at every turn just what buttons Musetta presses to wind Marcello up.
Similarly strong character portrayals come from Barnaby Rea as Colline and George Humphreys as Schaunard, the nature of whose similarities and differences make it highly believable that they really could be best friends. Rea brings to the fore a philosopher’s dry wit that can at times be as puerile as it is undoubtdely clever. Humphreys on the surface appears more out-going and carefree, but by the same token proves to be the more lacking when it comes to coping with tragedy. When Colline attempts to help Mimì by leaving the flat to sell his coat, Schaunard merely collapses in an inconsolable heap on the steps outside.
If Gianluca Marcianò conducts with a pleasing combination of passion and delicacy, doing full justice to the sweeping nature of Puccini’s enigmatic score, Amanda Holden’s translation proves just a little more problematic. It may ultimately be that La bohème is a particularly difficult opera in which to fit English words and syllables to the original lines of music. While, however, I found the earthy translation particularly jarring last year, this time I could appreciate that if it is almost impossible to achieve ‘high poetry’ anyway, then it is perhaps better to opt for an irreverent and ultimately fun alternative that in this instance fits perfectly with the tenor of the production.
James Burton conducts the performances on 26 and 28 November.