Puccini’s warhorse, never out of the repertoire, can uplift and delight even the most weathered opera-lover, especially when delivered by a cast of truly great voices. We have a legacy of past recordings – Björling and de Los Angeles, Bergonzi and Tebaldi, Pavarotti and Freni – that amply fulfil that requirement. In the absence of such distinguished singing (and there are few today who can come close to filling such shoes), a rock-solid ensemble and coherent directorial line can also breathe life into the hoary old melodrama.
Jonathan Miller’s new production for ENO falls into the second camp, big on dramatic integrity and satisfying to anyone willing to take a large dose of reality with the sentiment. Its strength lies in making this fairy tale, in which people fall into everlasting love in seconds, completely believable.
The sense of detail, in a staging which successfully transposes the setting to 1930s Paris, is faultless. Chocolate box romance is stripped away and replaced with a down-to-earth realism that still manages to touch the heart.
The singing isn’t at all bad, as good as many a recent ENO and Covent Garden revival. Two US imports, Melody Moore as Mimi and Hanan Alattar’s Musetta, impress both vocally and dramatically and the boys are cast from strength, with Roland Wood’s Marcello a stand-out.
Alfie Boe is no newcomer to the role of Rodolfo, having played it on Broadway in Baz Luhrmann’s “musical” version and also for Glyndebourne on Tour. His light tenor is never less than pleasant but he has difficulty surfing the orchestral wave (much of “Che gelida manina” sounds like an instrumental interlude). What he lacks in vocal heft, though, he makes up for in an enormously likeable presence and some finely-detailed acting.
Design, direction and performances all gel, with Coliseum debutant Miguel Harth-Bedoya easing a smooth and supple account of Puccini’s glorious score from the ENO orchestra.
Some will bewail the loss of sentimental indulgence but, if I can’t have those monumental voices of an increasingly distant past, give me something to believe in anytime