ENO have opened their summer season in style with a
newly-minted, endearing and engrossing revival of Jonathan Miller’s staging of La bohème. This is its second revival, and the improvements since it was
last seen three years ago are manifold. In 2010 I was pretty dismissive of the
whole undertaking as it was glaringly undercast, save Elizabeth Llewellyn’s
radiant Mimi, with the staging coming across as an unworthy successor to the
late Stephen Pimlott’s which Miller’s version replaced.
All that has
changed as Natascha Metherell directs this revival with such a sure touch. The
broad brushstrokes that had so marred its previous outing are now replaced with
subtlety and real in-depth characterisation, and for once all the characters
appear as flesh and blood creations – there’s no posturing, superfluous
movement or ‘operatic’ gesturing, just a gallery of believable individuals who
live, love and face up to adversity and loss like the rest of us.
Such a tightly-knit cast also manages to make
Isabella Bywater’s designs of 1930s’ Paris spring to life. The garret of the
first act screams poverty, yet transforms nicely into the hustle and bustle of
Café Momus. In the third act the down at heel surroundings (weary prostitutes
can be seen plying their trade in the background) contrast nicely with the
exuberance of the proceeding act.
There’s not a single weak link in the superb cast,
in fact it reminded me of the ENO glory days when the company worked with a
regular ensemble of singers. The one hold over from last time, Gwyn Hughes
Jones, shows a marked improvement on his last showing. Although his lyrical
tenor sometimes gets lost in the orchestral sound, he presents an ardently
youthful Rodolfo whose progress from headstrong poet at the start to a broken
man at the end is unerringly chartered.
As Mimi, Kate Valentine starts hesitantly but
grows in confidence and stature as the evening progresses. Whereas Llewellyn gave
the character a harder edge than is usual, Valentine’s portrayal is more
conventional and as such is more heart-wrenching. There is despair in the voice
when she breaks up with Rodolfo, and her final scene pulls on the heart strings
but never in a mawkish way.
Richard Burkhard is an unconventional Marcello, in that he replaces the usual
bravado and bluster with more nuanced characteristics, which help to underline
his insecurities. This sheds new light on his relationship with Musetta, here
voiced thrillingly by house debutante Angel Blue, and makes their interaction
far more believable than is often the case.
Duncan Rock once again proves that he is the most
exciting young baritone on the company’s roster with his faultless portrayal of
Schaunard, whilst Andrew Craig Brown is exemplary as Colline.
In the pit Oleg Caetani conducts a generally fleet
performance, which makes the times when the momentum falters all the more
frustrating, and on occasion he allows the orchestra to drown the singers, but
thankfully these moments are few and far between and will no doubt be ironed
out as the run progresses. Given the superb cast, focussed staging, and
exemplary playing from the ENO orchestra this is as enjoyable and rewarding
performance of Puccini’s masterpiece that you’re likely to encounter.