Anybody who has enjoyed an extended love affair with opera will know from their frequent disappointment that it is an art form alarmingly susceptible to being royally buggered up. Singers who – either through delusion or an inability to say no – allow themselves to be cast in roles for which they are patently ill-equipped will suck the life out of the best productions; theatre management that persists in colluding with them perpetuates both the disappointment for the audience and the damage to the reputation of the performers; directors in thrall to white-tiled bathrooms, chain-link fencing or the Third Reich can render risible a musical performance that would otherwise rank as world-class.
None of which afflicts the current revival of Puccini’s La bohème at the Coliseum, where, by doing the basics extraordinarily well, English National Opera makes the endeavour of staging great opera look deceptively simple. The production is sincere and grittily evocative. The relocation of the action to the 1930s in no way jars with what takes place on stage, and the spirit of Murger’s original material is preserved. An outstanding ensemble of young singers are, without exception, endowed with the generous vocal resources that are required to do full justice to Puccini’s soaring lines, as well as being committed and persuasive actors. They are proof that it is not essential to come with stellar reputations (which a couple of them may well acquire) in order to deliver a team performance of the highest quality. In the pit, a conductor that clearly knows and loves Puccini. The ingredients are here so artfully blended that, at the end of the evening, one inevitably wonders why the recipe can turn out so badly on other occasions.
This is the third revival of Jonathan Miller’s 2009 production. The good doctor enlivened the run-up to the first night with his grumpy git shtick, disavowing his connection with the show on the basis of not having been called upon to direct this run. On this occasion, ENO chose to go with Natascha Metherell, his assistant the last time the production had an outing. Regardless, it has the old curmudgeon’s fingerprints all over it, and is clearly going to be as popular and as important to the company’s fortunes as were his Rigoletto and The Mikado. It is as good an evocation of old Montmartre as one could hope for. Designer Isabella Bywater’s split level students’ garret is constructed so as to give the audience access to the staircase, the hallway and other apartments. This allows for extra action to be inserted that heightens the impact of key scenes. Watching Musetta drag the rapidly fading Mimi in from the cold while the boys are fooling around upstairs is an authentic emotional wrench, as is the sight of Schaunard in despair on the stairs as the seamstress breathes her last. In a lighter moment, we actually get to see Colline fall downstairs rather than just hear about it. As the first act transitions seamlessly into the second, the building ingeniously breaks apart, gyrates and reassembles itself into Café Momus, the only occasion on which Jean Kalman’s ominously grey lighting is alleviated by some yellowy warmth. This is a staging in which the set does more than merely provide context; it is another character that has its own part to play in the unfolding narrative.
Vocally, the experience is a consistently joyous one. In the role of the eponymous seamstress, the young Californian soprano Angel Blue left no doubt as to why many consider her to be the next big thing. She has a large, opulent voice that gleams like silver at the top, and with which she can milk the climactic phrases of ‘Mi chiamano Mimi’, ‘Donde lieta uscì’ and the Act 3 duet with Rodolfo for all they are worth. Lower down, the timbre becomes dark and smoky. Her final moments were as heartbreaking as the most sentimental observer could wish for. If I were to have to find something to carp at (and I suppose I should) Miss Blue’s portrayal would benefit from a touch of vulnerability. She is not a fragile-looking woman, and her assertive body language, especially in Act 1, occasionally gives the impression of a cougar homing in on a younger man. (Am I actually allowed to say ‘cougar’ in polite company? I really don’t know. Oh well, too late now.)
Earlier this year, I heard British tenor David Butt Philip for the first time as Pang in the ROH’s Turandot, where he struck me as remarkably luxurious casting for that role. On the basis of his Rodolfo here, it will be a travesty if he doesn’t go on to enjoy an illustrious career. The voice is a glorious one: warm, large, and ringing vibrantly through the high-lying phrases that Puccini lavishes on the poet, with never a hint of fatigue. All delivered with immense bravado and Italianate style. Every inch the young, besotted lover, he manages the transition through desperation, bitterness and, ultimately, to tragedy with immense aplomb.
The more combative relationship of Musetta and Marcello is nicely handled by the American soprano, Jennifer Holloway and baritone George von Bergen (an ENO Harewood Artist). Miss Holloway is feisty and sassy with a voice to match. The frustration of the audience at having nowhere to applaud after her impeccable ‘Quando m’en vo’ was tangible. What was Puccini thinking of? (N.B. Some confusion exists over Miss Holloway’s voice type. The press information sheet lists her as a soprano, which is what one would expect for this role. However, both the official programme and Miss Holloway’s own website identify her as a mezzo-soprano. Opera Britannia will be asking ENO for clarification.) Mr von Bergen has a firm lyric baritone that he deployed to good effect in delivering a painter who was in turn funny, gruff, mercurial and kind.
Fresh from an affectingly sung Jake Wallace in The Girl of the Golden West at this venue, British baritone, George Humphreys was a lively Schaunard who clearly has bigger things in his future. As the lugubrious philosopher, Colline, Barnaby Rea (another ENO Harewood Artist) is a lighter-voiced bass than usual in this role. Nonetheless, he sang an immaculate farewell to his coat, a final desperate measure to save Mimi, from which he extracted more poignancy than I have previously experienced. A real lump-in-the-throat moment.
Inevitably, ENO’s comic stalwart, Andrew Shore, elevated the art of scene-stealing to new heights in the dual roles of the landlord, Benoît and Alcindoro, Musetta’s sugar daddy.
Wielding the baton, Gianluca Marcianò paced the action perfectly, was unfailingly sensitive to his singers, and drew glorious sounds from an orchestra that now excels in this repertoire.
A truly exceptional evening’s entertainment, but don’t take my word for it. Grab a ticket if you can, and see for yourself. You won’t regret it.