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Before the performance, a short speech by Nicholas Hytner, artistic director of the National Theatre, paid tribute to Steven Pimlott, who died last week. Although not especially connected with English National Opera, Pimlott worked extensively with all the main opera and theatre companies in the UK as well as abroad.
His ENO production of La Bohèmedates back to 1993, but this revival shows how fresh his work can still seem more than a decade later. He pitched this show perfectly to an ENO audience – a lively, 1950s version of Puccini’s timeless opera, set among a layabout group of artistic hopefuls who might still be around and speaking directly in the language of contemporary youth (Jeremy Sams’s free and racy translation is one of his best, though I am not sure these characters would sit around playing Cluedo, as he suggests in the last act).
For this revival Xian Zhang, associate conductor of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, leads a generally well played performance that is cast from strength among the lower ranks of the Bohemians. Mark Stone plays Marcello potently as the down-to-earth member of the group and Giselle Allen makes a suitable splash as his heart-of-diamond Musetta – their reunion, played out along the top of a long table, is brilliantly choreographed. Iain Paterson makes a decisive Schaunard and Matthew Rose a delightful caricature of Colline as a young, head-in-the-clouds philosopher, his proud bass standing out as a voice of exceptional promise.
As so often at ENO, the two leads are more problematical. Peter Auty is taken to his vocal limits singing the role of Rodolfo in a theatre of this size and does well to phrase sensitively in the circumstances. The slight Mimì of Mary Plazas looks right, ideally fragile, but her voice is apt to harden too often. The spare setting also causes a few logistical problems: surely putting poor Mimì outside on a mattress in the snow for the night when she in the last throes of consumption is not exactly what the doctor ordered? ★★★☆☆
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