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Seen and Heard Opera Review


Puccini, La Bohčme:
Soloists, Chorus & Orchestra of English National Opera/Xian Zhang, London Coliseum, 24.02.2007 (CC)


The strengths of ENO as a house company are well documented and were fully on display here at the Coli – yet this was one occasion on which there was also a clear star of the evening. Mary Plazas played the tragic heroine, Mimě, for all she was worth. Plazas' energy impressed in her Elvira in 2004. Here, though, was a chance for us all to enjoy her full expressive vocabulary. Believable in her vulnerability right from the start, Plazas voiced her 'Sě, chiamino Mimě' magnificently; delivered with just a slight edge to the voice, it verged on the perfect. It was this vulnerability that was to come into full play in the tear-jerking final act, where her party-stopping entrance had all the effect the composer surely intended (I find it hard to bring to mind a crueller juxtaposition). As her death neared there wasn't a dry eye in the house (except for critics, of course).


The production itself uses the same basic set throughout (strange considering the diverity of Puccini's locations). In the event, this entire production acts as a memorial to the director Steven Pimlott, who died on Valentine's Day – the revival director is Ian Rutherford. The setting is mid-twentieth century, as are the costumes. The blaze of colour that illumines the Act 2 Christmas crowd scenes shows ENO at its height, with the chorus on top form. Parpginol (the excellent Philip Ball) is portrayed as a circus character. Magnificent.


The scenes with 'the lads' – Rodolfo, Marcello, Colline and Schaunard – are in essence an extension of the ENO company ethos in their ensemble excellence. The singers bounce phrases off each other as easily as they throw things around in jest. It is Rodolfo and Marcello that have the most to do in the grander scale of things, though. Initially I felt that Peter Auty’s Rodolfo was on the light side, more of a provincial tenor that one fit to stand on the international stage. His duets with Mimě later in Act 1 gave reason for hope, however ('O soave fanciulla' was very affecting) and by Mimě's death scene one genuinely felt for him.


The 'other' couple (Marcello and Musetta) luckily matches the principal couple in excellence. The painter Marcello is portrayed by Mark Stone (the Don in the Giovanni mentioned above), who appears to be working on a Parisian version of Hokusai's Under the Wave, off Kanagawa. In terms of pure confidence, he is in danger of outshining Auty (he has a particular swagger that marked his Giovanni), and his straight-to-the-point strong voice mirrors his onstage character. Giselle Allen vamps her way through Musetta's part looking as if she is having the time of her life, which may well be the case. Her Act 2 song, delivered in a suspiciously Father Christmas-like outfit while Marcello reads the paper, was pure delight. 


The conductor, Xian Zhang, is making her UK operatic debut here. She appears to have the laudable ability to clarify Puccini's complex orchestral/vocal textures in crowd scenes yet often appears a little reticent in the more overt Puccinian outpourings. Personally I would like to think this latter trait springs from some Sinopoli-influenced deconstructivist approach, but the reticence did not carry the necessary paradoxical conviction to make it believable. Whatever the case, lines should be given the time to soar and stretch at pivotal junctures, something which happened too rarely here. In addition, Zhang could not quite negotiate with chameleon-like rapidity the changes of mood required at the start of the Fourth Act.


The translation is generally fine although there are a couple of places where things did not seem to scan well – not to mention the occasional groaner such as 'Life's getting harder/This is for the larder'.


ENO continues to provide sterling entertainment to packed houses. Long may it continue.

Colin Clarke




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