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Puccini, La bohème: New production directed by Sir Jonathan Miller with sets and costumes designed by Isabella Bywater. Soloists, chorus and orchestra of the English National Opera. Conductor: Miguel Harth-Bedoya. The London Coliseum, 4.2.2009. (JPr)

The Bohemians' Garret

In the publicity for these performances,  these words from Sir Jonathan Miller have often been repeated:  ‘Puccini’s operas are really rather like movies, and La bohème is the most natural and believable of them all. I want to make it as much like a movie as it could possibly be. I’m basing the artists’ relationship on the movie Withnail and I – shabby, upper class boys who think squalor is very romantic.’ As things worked out, Sir Jonathan may regret these comments now because what we get is not seedy, hedonistic or drug-fuelled enough to be associated with this slice of life in late 1960’s London. Better perhaps is his alternative description of the bohemians as students on a gap year,  since Rodolfo certainly has a rich uncle and is only probably a letter away from getting the money he needs to support himself.

Miller, returning to the
ENO after his own gap of twelve years, and his current regular designer, Isabella Bywater, strive for cinematic realism by updating the action to Paris in the early 1930s - coincidentally a period of twentieth-century recession. That city’s demi-monde was photographed by Cartier-Bresson, Kertesz and Gyula Halász (alias Brassaï); photos by the latter reprinted in the programme were clearly the biggest inspiration to Bywater’s designs. There are two solid split level revolving sets and the flatmates appear to be living in a loft above the Café Momus in a single room with (strangely) only one bed. The room is connected to a bathroom and there are stairs down to Mimi’s apartment. We can see the comings and goings of Marcello, Colline, Schaunard, Benoit, Mimì and Musetta but whether much is gained from all this  is less sure. Certainly what was lost,  was any great sense of drawing the audience into the intimate world of the bohemians, The setting will have made for good television - the first performance was broadcast by Sky Arts - but will have made little impact on those in the London Coliseum’s Upper Circle or Balcony. The performing space containing little more than a couple of desks, the bed, an armchair and, of course, the stove in which to  burn Rodolfo’s manuscript,  was too claustrophobic and much of  the action too far upstage.

For the Café Momus scene, there was also too much going on in too small a space and I think those in the stalls might have lost some of the action due to the children, the marching band and Parpignol (Philip Daggett) as Charlie Chaplin parading across the footlights and blocking their view. In the Dress Circle nothing was lost and I assume it was clearly seen on TV once again. (It was. Ed)


The Cafe Momus with Parpignol

In Act III the snowy scene with freezing workers trudging miserably onward was al too familiar to those who set out in the blizzards in the London and throughout the UK, which led to the cancellation of the original first night for this new production two days earlier. Without the restricted acting space of the first two acts diluting Miller’s concentration on psychological detail,  and by basically focussing, as he must, on Marcello and Mimì and then Rodolfo and Mimì this act came over much better. Unfortunately for Act IV we were back in the cramped garret and everyone was on top of each other again, particularly for the bohemians’ puerile and under-rehearsed shenanigans.

Period films and photographs are intrinsically two-dimensional and that was my reaction to the overall evening. Apart from a very few French signs and adverts on stage, as well as, the moustaches of the waiters in the café,  never did I feel I was really in Paris -  I could have equally been in Whitechapel and Soho of the 1930s. Undoubtedly charity shops had been scoured for
cloche hats, berets, fur-trimmed coats and couture dropped-waist dresses for the women and dark wool overcoats, suits and flat caps for the men. All of this was in a generally muted colour palette and ‘enhanced’ by the monochrome lighting of Jean Kalman so it had the look of the depictions of the 1930s,  but I was never convinced about where we actually were. A true Gallic setting needs a headier whiff of garlic!

The principals basically seem to have been left to themselves to act as naturally as possible. Jonathan Miller demands the eschewing of grand operatic gestures and his lack of theatricality drains the energy from the proceedings -  so much so that it seemed more like the tenth revival of a familiar production rather than the first night. Rodolfo is a very insecure and far-from-romantic figure, ardent yes,  but possibly still a virgin. Mimì is probably the experienced ‘older woman’ that most students throughout history have craved. Even Musetta seems to play up Rodolfo’s innocence by aiming more to embarrass him with her song than trying to rekindle Marcello’s passion. She is something of a Piaf-like creation here and evidently quite a popular figure based on the autographs she is asked to sign.

I couldn’t help but think that this was an opportunity missed by the director and the imagination that brought us his earlier ‘celebrated classics’ (in ENO’s artistic director John Berry’s words) seems to have been dulled by the passing years. I would have liked something different to engage the mind – perhaps it could have been set in Paris during the German occupation : I wouldn’t wish for an operatic version of ‘Allo, ‘Allo! of course, but this setting might have reinvented the story rather more to allow for more drama and to engage the audience more fully in the idealism, passions and fatalism of Puccini’s characters.

Perhaps Jonathan Miller wanted to leave the emotional impact of the evening to Puccini’s music,  but the young Peruvian conductor, Miguel Harth-Bedoya, drew a rather cool account from his extremely competent orchestra. There were some subtle orchestral details and colours yet his tempi were rather elastic and the dynamics varied little whether the quieter or louder singers were involved. I was left with the feeling that he was accompanying the performance rather than driving it forward.

Amanda Holden’s new English translation was competent and in a familiar rhyming couplet style  -  ‘Mimì go home then, go on your way, you’d be unwise to stay’ -  with some anachronisms and use of vernacular. The singers concentrated on the vowel sounds and some were more able to bring the words across than others – the two women principals to be truthful,  generally had the louder voices and had the best diction. The chorus and the children were excellent in their brief appearance and Simon Butteriss as the landlord, Benoit, and the veteran Richard Angas as Musetta’s cuckolded companion, Alcindoro, were well-characterized,  but the roles of Marcello (Roland Wood), Colline (Paul Putninš) and Schaunard (David Stout) seemed underdeveloped and were somewhat undersung.

As Rodolfo, Alfie Boe has an essentially small lyrical voice and the London Coliseum is a daunting space to fill with sound. Again,  only the two Americans, Hanan Alattar as the quintessential ‘tart with a heart’ Musetta, and the delightfully named Melody Moore, who excelled as Mimì, were capable of that. Ms Moore making her European debut is the star of the evening; her round rich dark toned soprano had the elegant phrasing and very strong top notes of the best Mimìs. She was impassioned in her Act III duet with Marcello and suitably affecting at her death. Surprisingly Dr Miller for all his medical background,  fails to give her a realistic demise although I am sure he would argue otherwise. Even so, she never seems frail or consumptive enough for such an early death and barely coughs more than a few times throughout the evening. If it wasn’t for the great sigh heard from the orchestra,  she could easily have fallen asleep in the armchair and not passed away. Alfie Boe’s best moments came right at this point with his agonized realization that his loved one had died and that he was the last to know. This moment of high drama highlighted what the rest of evening was truly lacking.

Jim Pritchard

Pictures © Tristram Kenton

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