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La bohème, Coliseum, London
Traditionally, when Rodolfo tells Mimì “Your tiny hand is frozen”, it is not because of the Arctic winds and blizzards. The harsh winter weather that caused transport disruption on Monday also resulted in the opening night of English National Opera’s new production of La bohème and its live satellite television relay being postponed to Wednesday.
Perhaps the delay explains why the production seemed to have gone off the boil before the curtain went up. The evening’s good points tried to stack up – the staging has plenty of atmosphere and some of the singing was good (if underpowered) – but the end result still lacked the thrill factor. It was not only Mimì’s hand that was cold to the touch. The whole opera was on the chill side.
Most of the advance interest has centred on Jonathan Miller’s return to ENO as a director after more than a decade’s absence. He updates the action to the 1930s, which holds out the promise of credit crunch topicality, but aside from some unemployed men calling out “Give us a job” at the local café, Miller does not have serious parallels in mind. His interest seems to have been more in clothing the opera in atmospheric 1930s style.
Rodolfo and his student friends are living in an upstairs artists’ studio with Café Momus tucked underneath (the audience sees the transformation with the curtain up). It is utilitarian and colourless, which is a shame, as they are rather a grey bunch themselves. Some of Miller’s earlier ENO productions suffered from bland characterisations and these four have the air of earnest sociology undergraduates, rather than a fun, arty quartet.
That, however, may be part of Miller’s ploy. His way with Italian opera is to underplay anything that hints of excess, so Mimì and Rodolfo sit quietly by the table to declare their love, and later Rodolfo discusses his crisis with Marcello unassumingly seated at a public bench, not behaving at all like a pair of opera singers at the height of the music’s emotions. This will have played well on a television screen, though it makes for a lukewarm evening on stage.
The vocal honours go to the American soprano Melody Moore, whose Mimì makes up in beauty of tone what she may lack in heart-stopping fragility. In the role of Rodolfo, Alfie Boe’s quality as a singer is never in doubt, but his attractive, lean voice is one size short of a Puccini tenor in a theatre as big as the Coliseum.
In spite of being given little stage business to work with, the vivacious Hanan Alattar managed to light up Musetta’s entrance. Otherwise, Roland Wood’s less than engaging Marcello, David Stout’s incisive Schaunard and Pauls Putnins’s gruff Colline made up an uncharismatic quartet of Bohemians, leaving all the laughs to the more experienced cameo players of Simon Butteriss’s game Benoit and Richard Angas’s hard put-upon Alcindoro.
Miguel Harth-Bedoya, the conductor, might have helped them all by getting a move on, rather than lingering at every opportunity and stretching their vocal resources, but he always made sure the orchestral playing sounded like handsome Puccini.
Some of Miller’s productions have been among ENO’s longest-surviving successes – his Rigoletto and Mikado have given over 20 years’ good service – and the company will be hoping this Bohème will follow them. It looks good and comes with a new translation that finds a fresh take on the opera’s most famous lines. “This hand of yours is freezing”, sings Rodolfo in this version – indeed, but one hopes other casts in the future will succeed in warming it up a little.
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