One of the greatest strengths of Puccini’s La bohème is its sentimentality. But this is no run-of-the-mill sentimental sap, this is twilight-of-the-nineteenth-century-Italian sap, which means that those feelings of tenderness, sadness, or nostalgia are exacerbated not only by the self-indulgence typical of “feeling sentimental” (feelings evoked simply by attending the opera), but also by the strength of each singer. ENO’s current production is, by these standards, very strong indeed.
It was great to have a sensitive interpreter of Puccini in the pit, and Oleg Caetaniwas every bit the intelligent and responsive conductor he needed to be. There was a synergy between the orchestra and singers that I haven’t heard in a Bohème for several years, nonsensical as that may sound particularly because it is a vital aspect of any performance of the work. Part of this was due to his expressive dynamic control over the orchestra: it wasn’t at full tilt all the time and there were many moments when, because the singers are young and were singing Puccini, the orchestra responded with warmth and an appropriate volume suited to the voices on-stage.
The Rodolfo of Gwyn Hughes Jones was a sensitive but at times too precious representation of the character. Still, he tackled the music extremely well save one moment, and unfortunately that moment is where it counted most. Although Rodolfo is an extremely difficult role and there are many moments in the opera that are wildly challenging none is more so than the end. Those bloodcurdling cries of "Mimi!" must be tackled with full force; otherwise there is no catharsis, only weakness. A Bohème without a Rodolfo singing con forza pairs of "Mimi!" is like a salad from McDonald's: not quite right and definitely unsatisfying.
Richard Burkhard was a Marcello looking for a muse(tta): he sang finely throughout the work but particularly well in his duet with Jones, despite his difficulty with the optional pianissimos at the end. Surely his best moment, however, was in Act III, with Kate Valentine’s Mimi. Valentine tackled Mimi’s difficult music with apparent ease, but one sought more tenderness in her psychical and vocal portrayal, particularly in the more intimate music like “Donde lietea.” This is not to say that she did not sing the final scene (which is hugely intimate) extremely well and to great effect. Her chemistry with Jones was also extremely good, which made their love seem more realistic or coy--less like a chance encounter.
The best part of the evening was the show-stealing performance of Angel Blue who sang an outstanding Musetta: her portrayal breathed modern sass, a fiery energy, and, in Act IV, an extra bit of pathos into the rest of the performance. Her “Quando m’en vo” was both technically proficient and emotionally evocative, though one would have wished for a bit more pianissimo on the final B-flat.
The more minor bohemians Colline and Schaunard, played by Andrew Craig Brown and Duncan Rock respectively were actually hardly minor at all: both singers defined their characters extraordinarily well, something I’ve never seen before. Rock completely lost it as Mimi died and Brown sang the most heartfelt goodbye to his coat I’ve ever heard.
Jonathan Miller's production complemented the very high level of singing; it perfrectly evoked a cold and unrelenting Paris both apart of and opposed to the love of Rodolofo and Mimi.
This was an incredibly strong performance of one of Puccini’s greatest works: it is ENO at its best. Don’t miss it.
Photos: Alastair Muir