Puccini: La bohème

English National Opera

London Coliseum, 5 February 2009 4 stars

Alfie Boe and Melody Moore (Photo: Tristram Kenton)Jonathan Miller has served the English National Opera well over the thirty years since his first work for the company. And this intelligent and understated Bohème looks set to be another invaluable asset in the company's repertoire.

Part of what made Puccini's 1896 opera so modern was, as Roger Parker reminds us in his programme essay, the fact that it presented an unmediated vision of poverty and destitution. An irony of most productions of the work, such as those by Zeffirelli and the Royal Opera's own lavish John Copley staging (from 1974), is that such vast expense obviously goes into the faithful recreation of so much nineteenth-century impecuniousness.

What seems to have been clear to Miller in his new staging – updated to Paris in the early 1930s – is that to festishize this poverty is to detract from the simplicity and directness of the story, patched together from Murger's Scènes by Puccini's librettists, Illica and Giacosa, under the composer's close scrutiny.    

An ingenious set design by Isabella Bywater helps to create a production that is literally light on its feet. In Act One we have the cross-section of a small Parisian building: the Bohemians' garret is an airy if cramped studio to the left, situated above an empty café; centre stage are the stairs leading up to it; downstairs to the right, we can see the door to Mimi's modest ground-floor dwelling; above it is the Bohemians' bathroom, and several lines in the act are gleefully yelled over the shoulder whilst using the loo.

Rather than drop the curtain at the end of the act, stagehands stroll on and swing the set round, splitting it in two, to reveal Café Momus on the other side. The 1930s setting, at the height of the era's economic depression, means that Act Three stays in central Paris. While the audience might have scoffed at the modest snowfall at the start of the act – not a patch on the deluge that forced this production's opening night to cancel – they must have appreciated the simplicity of again just swinging the set round a little further to create an employment office, appended to the café where Rodolfo and Marcello eke out their existence. One further half-turn and we were back to the garret for the final set, without the action missing a beat.

La Boheme (Photo: Tristram Kenton)Miller's decision to update the opera was made before the present economic crisis, but to have the drama take place in a period of poverty created by a stock market crash certainly gives the production an extra contemporary resonance, especially when Schaunard sings about a future where 'everything's uncertain'. Yet the updating calls for little adjustment of either the details or the bigger picture. The costumes are based faithfully but unobtrusively on contemporary photographs by Brassaï and Musetta, now some sort of minor celebrity, sports a dress and bob that are most conspicuously à la mode.

Another point that Parker makes in his programme essay is that La Bohème arrived on the musical scene at a time when 'mass appeal was beginning to be frowned upon by arbiters of the most elevated taste'. The opera is now acknowledged as an unimpeachable masterpiece, yet the career of tenor Alfie Boe has, for many, skated a fine line between opera and cross-over; it's no coincidence that his is the only singer's name that appears on ENO's production posters. However, Boe's ability is in no doubt and although his voice is a size smaller than ideal for Rodolfo, it has appealing sweetness and is employed with elegance and taste. His Rodolfo leads a lively and often very funny group of Bohemians: all act brilliantly and are directed beautifully by Millar to bring out the improvised humour of the everyday.

La Boheme (Photo: Tristram Kenton)As Marcello, Roland Wood sometimes lacks sheer vocal heft but, like Boe, sings with elegance and charm, delivering his spiteful reproaches to Musetta – spiced up slightly by Amanda Holden's clean and eminently singable translation – with evident relish. Although an excellent actor, the blustery Colline of Pauls Putninš didn't fit in vocally very well with his colleagues. David Stout, on the other hand, was probably the most universally satisfying of the group; his rich and smooth baritone is an instrument of unmistakable quality.

The real vocal glamour of the evening was provided by the two ladies, though, both imported from the States and making their UK debuts. Melody Moore was a touching Mimì with a generous, smoothly produced soprano that filled out the Coliseum with apparent ease. Hers is a voice that has just that mix of spinto power and vulnerability that the role needs and she's singer who would not be out of place across the West End, singing the role on the Covent Garden stage.

Hanan Alattar was no less persuasive as the coquettish, self-obsessed Musetta, carrying off both her stylish attire and the vocal fireworks with aplomb. One complaint is that both she and Moore have a slightly strange way with certain vowels, a minor concern that was definitely not a problem with the beautifully enunciated performances by Simon Butteris (a letchy Benoît) and Richard Angas as Alcindoro.

Conducting his first opera in the UK was another American, Miguel Harth-Bedoya. The evening started off rather low key as he tried to maintain a balance between the Bohemians – set some way back and up a level in Act One, they had problems projecting into the auditorium – and the pit. However, despite minor issues of ensemble (the antiphonal brass of the big chords heralding Rodolfo's final outburst were out of sync) the orchestra warmed up greatly, producing a rich, Puccinian sound much of the time. By the final act, Harth-Bedoya had them swooning and swelling hypnotically, drawing out the final scene with expert control.

This production has neither the ingenious directorial solutions that made Jonathan Miller's famous Mafioso Rigoletto so impressive, nor the brutal but ever-so-charmingly delivered satirical side-swipes of his Mikado. What we have, though, is a Bohème that takes us simply and unpretentiously to the work's heart. With a young, committed cast, it's a moving and thoroughly satisfying evening's theatre.

By Hugo Shirley

Photo Credits: Tristram Kenton

This performance, which was broadcast live by Sky Arts 2 and Sky Arts HD, will be shown again on Sky 2 and HD on 8 February and will be available to view on classicaltv.com from Wednesday 11 February (UK only). line

GheorghiuRelated articles:

John Copley's Bohème revived at Covent Garden (Review, October 2008)
Gheorghiu and Vargas in La bohème at the Met (Review, April 2008)
CD Review Netrebko and Villazon in La bohème (DG)
CD Review Decca's classic Bohème with Freni, Pavarotti and Karajan