It took 63 years for Leoncavallo’s La Bohème to come to London (in an amateur production in 1960), and another 40 years to make it to ENO. The latter is about the right interval for opera tickers. The very full first night audience must have contained quite a few who, with luck, will be dead before this justly neglected work is resurrected again. The music is pedestrian; it doesn’t work as drama; the libretto is flat, with no emphases.
Lovers of inarticulate choral shouts – such as in so much Massenet – may like it; mostly, however, it will appeal to opera collectors. An acquaintance said to me over interval drinks: “I’m only staying because I’ll never see it again.” Lucky man!
There was excellent orchestral playing under Mark Shanahan, though at times it drowned out the mostly under-powered singers. (L’Incoronazione di Poppea revealed to us an enormous potential for getting this right.) Paul Whelan (Schaunard) was an exception projecting mellifluously the clear diction we have come to expect of him. Rhys Meirion (Marcello) sang affectingly, wedding his acting perfectly with the music – though at times up against a definitely non-user-friendly production. Poor Marcello had to crawl across the top of a long table, at which pretty nearly everybody had just eaten in this incredibly static and predictable staging, for his first kiss with Musetta. How silly! How profoundly unimaginative! Christine Rice sang Musetta beautifully.
The production raised a few ultimately unanswered questions – which seemed to be unrelated to the composer’s intentions – in a search for depth that results only in hitting your head on the bottom. There was no integrated design programme for set or costumes. This production occasionally rose to…cliché. Certainly nothing more or better. If I never see an ungainly singer clamber to the top of a table or a piano again, I will be pleased. It was all so fucking predictable, like the outcome of a children’s story, not adult entertainment. “Oh, it’s time for my big aria; I’d better climb on top of that table. Nobody’s ever going to hum the aria – maybe they’ll remember me standing on the table.” Wow! – I sure do remember.
The party scene did not show much evidence of choreography: mostly the chorus (in freaky costumes derived from a bizarre party thrown by the Comtesse de Noialles in 1929) went around mmmuuuhh-ing one another on either cheek – and that was that. The music afforded no scope for development, and the producer was obviously nodding off. Poor Paul Whelan, having already stood on top of every elevation, had to do something different – so he stripped. What a clever idea! Never been done before! – eh?
Opera tickers: go to see it. In any case, we all need to support ENO. But include something else in your plans for the evening that will give you pleasure.