“We have a delightful production of one of the most popular operas in the repertoire. It’s not very old, and audiences seem to love it. Clearly, what we should do is replace it with something stark, unengaging and gimmicky. Oh, and while we’re at it, have you seen the musical Rent?”
That conversation almost certainly never took place but it might as well have. Jonathan Miller’s 2009 staging of Puccini’s La Bohème – charming, evocative, and fitting both music and libretto like a glove – has been usurped by a sordid reimagining from director Benedict Andrews, that is colder and more brutal than its predecessor and completely devoid of romance.
The production, relocated to modern times, is by no means a complete disaster; it’s more of a missed opportunity, though still effective. It does, however, suffer from a couple of missteps, one so egregious that I was left feeling uncomfortable and angry at the aberrant shadow it casts over the entire opera. When, in Act I, Rodolfo is left alone while his boisterous friends depart for some Christmas Eve revelry, the end of the horseplay is a cue for him to start playing with some ‘horse’. He should be finishing his overdue article but his writer’s block leads him to produce, as though it were the most natural thing in the world, the paraphernalia required for a spot of heroin action. He gets as far as wrapping a tourniquet around his arm before he is interrupted by Mimi’s arrival. If the opera were being performed in the original Italian, the foiled needle insertion would occur precisely at the point where Rodolfo sings the line, ‘Non sono in vena’ (‘I’m not in the mood’ or, literally ‘I’m not in the vein’). It would be nice to think that some wag has a nicely developed feeling for black humour, but somehow I doubt it. Rodolfo doesn’t give up easily though. Having successfully seduced Mimi with his ardent concern for the temperature of her extremities, he once more whips out his gear and nonchalantly shoots up in front of her. He then takes her arm and, meeting minimal resistance, proceeds to inject her. He clearly doesn’t give her the good stuff though, as while he sprawls semi-comatose, she remains upright and alert throughout her aria. Both sing the act’s closing duet flat-out on the floor in a smacked-up stupor.
The portrayal of drug abuse isn’t what offends here. The problem is that it is superficially pasted onto the action in a manner so crass that it belittles the magnitude of the issue and diminishes the opera. (One is reminded of the uproar earlier this year of the rape scene in the Royal Opera’s new production of Guillaume Tell.) Updating a production is fine, as is introducing potentially controversial ideas, provided that the impetus for them comes from within the source material. In this case, the opulent romance of the score and its overt sympathy for the protagonists are irreparably undermined by the shoe-horning in of a jarring and squalid act. Rodolfo is instantly transformed from a romantic hero into a despicable abuser – Blake Fielder-Civil to Mimi’s Amy Winehouse – and the lens through which we view him is irrevocably changed for the rest of the opera. It is not even as though it’s done with much conviction. Having inserted the subject of drug addiction into where it doesn’t belong, it is thereafter ignored save for one moment in Act 3 when Marcello suddenly takes it upon himself, for no apparent reason, to examine Mimi’s arm for track marks.
I understand ENO’s justification for this device to be that heroin addiction is a modern equivalent to consumption, a disease which, in the nineteenth century, had associations with sexual immorality. That would be all well and good were it not for Mimi’s constant consumptive coughing and spluttering. The upshot is that, at the final curtain, the audience has no way of knowing the exact cause of her death – which may, of course, be the intention.
Johannes Schütz’s set designs are a mixed bag. The students’ garret in Acts 1 and 4 becomes a spacious ground-floor warehouse conversion, all high windows, metal-framed glass doors, exposed ducting and whitewashed walls. With its pleasant park view, one wonders how they can afford the rent. Are they really students, or just a bunch of middle-class yuppies, keeping it real by playing at impoverishment? Nevertheless, it’s a perfectly reasonable space for the action to play out, and it works well with Victoria Behr’s costume designs – predominantly jeans, T-shirts, and jarringly-coloured anoraks that nobody in their right mind would be seen dead in.
Act 2 is a bit of a dud. The students’ apartment breaks apart and morphs slowly into a depressingly unfestive Cafè Momus. I’ve never visited a mortuary but I can easily imagine that this is what one might look like. Bathing it in a sickly pink light does nothing to increase the desire to spend Christmas Eve there.
The set for Act 3 is the simplest yet most effective, with the stage completely shrouded in a heavy mist as the sleet falls relentlessly. On one side of the stage workers in orange overalls huddle around a fiercely burning brazier. On the other, the tavern – spinning on its axis as though in a delirium. The hedonistic activity inside is bathed in a sleazy crimson light, and is visible through two large vertically-stacked windows. The warmth attracts while the clientele repel.
It would be nice to report that some redemption is to be found in the musical performances. Unfortunately, this is only partly the case. In the title role, the American soprano Corinne Winters is vocally flawless without ever really managing to capture Mimi’s essential vulnerability. She has a lovely, effortlessly-produced voice, but there is a coolness that never quite allows the heroine’s endearing simplicity to come to the fore. Consequently it is hard to connect emotionally with her. She dies wonderfully though. Not slipping away decorously in bed, but with her ravaged body slumped cruelly against a wall.
Another American import, Zach Borichevsky, in his ENO debut, is visually perfect for the role of Rodolfo. Improbably tall and skinny for a tenor, he has a beautiful voice with a genuinely Italianate ring. However, there are some obvious technical flaws that still remain to be worked out. His support is unreliable, and the ends of high-lying phrases were often choked-off. This isn’t helped by the role being too big for him at this point in time. The voice was frequently under too much pressure for it to be able to perform at its best.
As Marcello, Duncan Rock, looking startlingly like a beefed-up Prince Harry in pyjamas, gave the strongest performance of the evening. His large, rock-solid baritone and easy-going acting made him the most sympathetic character on show. Something that can’t be said of silver-voiced soprano, Rhian Lois, whose vicious kicking of Alcindoro in Act 2 was completely out of kilter with her usual function as the tart with a heart.
There were strong performances from baritone Ashley Riches and bass Nicholas Masters as Schaunard and Colline, and their paint fight during the Act 4 shenanigans was executed with gusto. However Masters’ voice lacks some of the gravelly depth required for the role, resulting in his farewell to his coat being a little light on gravitas.
Conductor Xian Zhang produced a performance from the pit that mirrored the production – technically irreproachable but, apart from the odd moment here and there, distinctly lacking in warmth and romance.
This production that has the ingredients to be a perfectly decent replacement for its predecessor, but it is scarred by a single shock tactic that casts a dark shadow over the whole evening. It is a show that left me with a bewildering lack of sympathy for either the characters or their fate.