Jonathan Miller's simple and effective 1930s-set production of La bohème debuted in 2009 to positive reviews, and returns to ENO this week for its first revival.
The show is scheduled to run intermittently over the next three months. The cast shares some members with the first run, though the front line is largely new; star turn Alfie Boe will only appear in a select number of shows in the New Year - his place is ably taken by Gwyn Hughes Jones - whilst Elizabeth Llewellyn is making an impressive company debut in the role of Mimi. Flirty and prancing Irish soprano Mairead Buicke and a returning Roland Wood provide vocally strong secondary leads in the roles of Musetta and Marcello, with Pauls Putninš (whose voice, in its tone as much as its weight, is unmatched to the others') and George von Bergen (who is forceful and convincing) in support as Colline and Schaunard.
By updating the scenario to 1930s Paris Miller has found an effective way to enhance the contemporary resonance of the opera. Withnail and I (in the romanticisation of squalor) and recession echoes abound, for example. The updating is also faithful to the source; notwithstanding some historical evolution in the concept, Murger's bohemians are as apposite to the 1930s as they were to the nineteenth century, if not more so: by the latter period the bohemian subculture had reached saturation point across Europe. The assumption of such a lifestyle in that period speaks of a self-consciousness and theatricality that is entirely fitting to the operatic stage. Isabella Bywater's sets, meanwhile, as in the first run, are evocative without being fetishistic, and intelligently managed (they are simply turned around swiftly between acts), without feeling gimmicky, or slight.
Every effort has been made, then, to develop a palatable and persuasive account of the opera. The cast and musicians in the pit match the creative tenor of the production. Their musical collaboration emphasises the spirit and the colour of the setting, underscoring its extravagant romanticism with conscientious yet fulsome expression. Stephen Lord's conducting was a central figure in this effort, with tempi controlled yet accent and gesture freely flowing, and colour and weight carefully balanced with that of the singers. Lord's eagerness to emphasise the emotional fullness of the climaxes in the first and fourth acts, an eagerness conditioned by discretion, was particularly pleasing, whilst his dancing rhythms and piquant touches in the opening scene, the second act crowd scenes (replete with frenzied but wonderfully choreographed brass bands and cavorting children), and the first scene of the final act, brought crucial contrast to the emotional handwringing of the third act.
The casts' acting was nimble in stressing humour here and poignancy there. Their chemistry is easy and unforced, although there could have been a little more romantically between the two leads. The singing, as I have suggested, was generally strong, if a little inconsistent. Wood's Marcello is a smartly sung and vividly mocking creation, though real pathos emerges in his performance, as it does in the well-modulated assumption of Buicke, in the final act. Hughes Jones' Rodolfo makes up in voice what he lacks in sheer charisma; his singing in the love scene was plaintive and colossal at the same time, hitting the top of his voice’s range without strain or pull, easily finding a space just on top of the swelling orchestra without having to shout or remonstrate outside of elegance.
Llewellyn's performance in the same scene was more exacting of line and a little more composed, without sacrificing any of the emotional clout gained by Hughes Jones' moving autobiography. Llewellyn's acting in the critical third act was more heart-rending than Hughes Jones', she conveying a sort of nobility that eluded the tenor, although both were winning in their valedictions. The soprano thoroughly deserved the very warm reception she received at curtain call.
There is much to recommend this revival, then. Even if the problems of the work – this occasionally seems a drama without drama as a result of the schematic nature of the narrative and the cleavages between acts, between events even, and a play sometimes without real human beings – aren’t solved by the emphasis on fulsome emotionalising by the cast and band, at least the effectiveness of their performances charge each moment, if not the whole, with an easily enjoyed and inarguably moving significance.
Photo Credits: Robert Workman
John Copley's Bohème revived at Covent Garden (Review, October 2008)
Gheorghiu and Vargas in La bohème at the Met (Review, April 2008)
CD Review Netrebko and Villazon in La bohème (DG)
Jonathan Miller's production on its first run (Review, February 2009)