Sunday, 15 February 2009

La Bohème – ENO at London Coliseum

La Bohème by Giacomo Puccini
Libretto: Giacosa and Illica
Reviewer: Mark Valencia

It’s been a long wait, but Jonathan Miller has finally made it back into the Coliseum with this new production of Puccini’s tearjerker. His lengthy exile from St Martin’s Lane has been especially baffling considering the longevity of his ENO Mikado and Rigoletto, not to mention a superlative Turn of the Screw (recently superseded but still unsurpassed). Trendy, untried opera directors have come and gone from the house in recent years, leaving behind a trail of unrevivable detritus, and I can only imagine that the embarrassment of recent flops has prompted the house management to bring back Dr Miller’s trusted, tried and tested pair of hands for their new Bohème. A wise move, for when it comes to audience-friendly repertoire any repeat of last year’s car-crash Carmen would have done lasting damage to the company.

La Bohème tells the romantic tale of Rodolfo, a struggling poet who starves elegantly in a Parisian garret until the right girl comes along in the shape of Mimi, she of the frozen extremities. Alas, their love is doomed as Mimi succumbs to consumption amid the winter chill.

On paper it’s a wretched little story, but Puccini’s yearning, fractured melodies propel the emotion with remarkable economy and conciseness, and with an exquisite comedy counterpoint to the pervading misery in the sub-plot of Rodolfo’s fiery friends, Musetta and Marcello.

Despite a strong cast, Miller’s direction is more persuasive in the comedy than the tragedy. Roland Wood and Hanah Alattar are so outstanding both vocally and dramatically as the duelling amorosi that they eclipse the passionless Mimi and Rodolfo of Melody Moore and Alfie Boe. The lovers’ vapidity is not entirely the singers’ fault: Miller’s concern for visual style means that he rarely allows the unhappy couple to make eye contact so, as far as the audience is concerned, love’s bolt is never shot. Boe woos Moore from behind her chair when he should be gazing into her baby blues; and later, out in the snow, the two stand side by side and slightly apart for an exchange where only face to face would do. It’s hard to care about the lovers’ plight when we’re denied the visible evidence that they do actually love each other.

The stunning, semi-monochrome Paris imagined by Isabelle Bywater is thrilling in its atmosphere and versatility, but her designs do conceal a problem. More than half the action of La Bohème takes place up in that famous attic room; however, this is so cramped and placed so high on the stage that there is no space for the kind of directorial panache the music demands. Worse, even from the dress circle the Coliseum acoustic is not kind to voices produced from way above floor level, and Miguel Hartha-Bedoya’s excellent orchestra tends to swamp the singers during the outer acts of the opera. Too often Alfie Boe’s mellifluous tenor is so engulfed by Puccini’s orchestral waves that he is barely audible.

For all its faults this rich, subtly updated La Bohème is a treat that should pay its way in years to come. It has all the makings an ENO favourite; it just needs a touch of directorial unbuttoning, and perhaps a few stentorian voices to help it along,

Photos: Tristram Kenton
La Bohème runs until the 8th March
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