With Jonathan Miller’s production of La bohème we step into a photo album of Parisian life in the 1930s. Here are sepia-tinted, misty dawns over Montmartre and bustling streets at Christmas, where fashionably dressed families do their shopping and even poor Mimì, looking like a trend-setting female office worker, wants to have a nice outfit.
When the production was mounted in 2009, it was money well spent. Despite Miller’s updating of Puccini’s original, this is a traditional show of the best kind, with well-drilled crowd scenes and handsome, realistic sets that transform from the Bohemians’ upstairs apartment to the Café Momus, and from a Parisian street corner at sunrise back to the apartment while the audience looks on.
Being Miller, though, he could not allow the traditional operatic business to go unquestioned. Not for him the old-style Italian verismo, in which tenors melodramatically wave their arms and sopranos clutch their breasts. When this Mimì and Rodolfo meet, they settle down to tell their life stories over an intimate fireside chat, Rodolfo hitting his top C without so much as rising from his armchair – a model of English understatement.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, some previous performances have felt bland, but this revival finds a stronger personality. Kate Valentine is no simpering young waif, but a tall and dignified Mimì, whose soprano, with its slight edge and fast vibrato, comes into its own as the tension mounts. Gwyn Hughes Jones does a nice line in self-effacing humour as Rodolfo and sings well enough, even if his tenor could do with more depth of tone and (pace Miller) Italianate ardour.
The most striking performances come further down the cast list. American soprano Angel Blue is outstanding as Musetta, glamorous, commanding, and with a gleaming, lyric soprano that fills the theatre, all making her more than a match for Richard Burkhard’s impressively sung Marcello. Duncan Rock is a strong and assertive Schaunard, Andrew Craig Brown a youthfully lyrical Colline, and Simon Butteriss steals the stage each time he appears as Benoît and Alcindoro. It would be nice if the conductor, Oleg Caetani, did not let the music sag every time the pace drops, but that does not stop this being English National Opera’s most entertaining La bohème for some while.