When Stephen Pimlott s production of La Boheme was new in 1993 it divided critical opinion. It was played without an interval within Tobias Hoheisel s stark permanent set and many disliked the cool aesthetic of the look of the show. This is now the third revival and, curiously, I had not seen it before.
The performance is a revelation. I have always considered La Boheme to be a run of the mill showcase for good singers, never really considering it a taut piece of music drama. But joint directors Barry Atkinson and Frances Moore go to the heart of the piece, brushing away all preconceptions of this indestructible operatic war-horse. They direct with a cinematic sweep - each act blends easily into the next (despite the interval between Acts 2 and 3), and the pain and passion are at times unbearable.
Many critics have been flummoxed by the period in which this production is set; suffice it to say that it doesn t matter. Jeremy Sam s utterly believable translation works marvellously - the references to ‘Psycho don t jar at all, and the overall impact is overwhelming.
Most of the cast are new to their parts, but what comes across is a tightly-knitted ensemble performance, something that ENO achieves continually now. Alwyn Mellor, in her company debut, delivers an unutterably moving portrayal as Mimi. Her singing and technique are rock solid and she sings with gorgeous, limpid tone throughout. Elizabeth Woollett, a tart with a heart of gold as Musetta, sings splendidly, acts wonderfully. The rest of the Bohemians, led by Roberto Salvatori s exuberant Marcello complete a generally excellent cast. As Rodolfo, Bonaventura Bottone sounds strained in the upper reaches of the role, and his words are less clear than the rest of the cast. This is a shame as there is an awkward void in the performance because of this.
Emmanuel Joel leads a brilliantly paced performance from the pit but allows the orchestra its head too often, causing his excellent young cast to strain too often. First night problems will undoubtedly iron themselves out over the long run of performances ahead, making for a thoroughly enjoyable night at the opera.
Keith McDonnell, March 1998