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.