The first time around we thought it unfortunate that Stephen Pimlott had taken such a slapstick view of this sensitive opera, but apparently Puccini is widely regarded as fair game for cavalier treatment – pack in the audiences and give’m a good larf, eh?
The Coliseum could have done with considerable more packing – especially after the interval – but the sad re-invention of this production of La Bohème by Michael Walling will not draw crowds once the word goes around. If anybody wants this sort of thing, they’ll just pick up a copy of Loaded.
The lads are everywhere from the outset: Marcello’s gross painting – ought that solitary tsunami to have larger-than-life eyes staring out at the audience? Perhaps he was trying to blot them out with his five-inch paint brush? Poor Rodolfo can’t keep his hands quiet – always pulling his locks from his eyes like some fourteen-year-old, and attempting unsuccessfully to pull round him his baggy jacket over his baggy trousers.
Was he actually directed to do this? – given that he repeats these gestures so often, he must have been instructed. Why has this late nineteenth-century Bohemian Parisian been dressed like a cross between a pouty public schoolboy of the 1990s and something/anything from Dickens? But the worst thing about Rodolfo’s hands is that he does not deploy them on Mimi. Directly after producing the immortal Your Tiny Hand is Frozen he drops it, and one can only conclude that it remains frozen throughout.
The total lack of interplay between Rodolfo and Mimi throughout the charged romantic music of Act I, a deficit recalled in subsequent scenes, rendered the main plot of the opera at best secondary to producer ideas and at worst non-existent.
The orchestral playing was lovely. The orchestra of the ENO is tops in London and one of the finest and grossly underrated orchestras in the world. The singing was good, especially given the constraints of the production. Rhys Meirion (Rodolfo) and David Kempster (Marcello) displayed exemplary diction. Alycia Fashae (Musetta) punched out her notes – it would be good to hear what she could do with a more sympathetic treatment of her character.
It is a pity that everybody sang directly to the audience, often destroying the illusion, when they could well have tried to establish stage connections without in any way diminishing their audibility, particularly given the sharp conducting of Michael Lloyd. I overheard one veteran opera-goer say to a neophyte, ‘I do hope you enjoy it; but you might have to shut your eyes.’