Composer: Giacomo Puccini
Libretto: Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica
Director: Jonathan Miller
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
If the thought of Christmas trees in November and another whole month of panto, adaptations of A Christmas Carol and tinsel fills you with dread then the English National Opera’s new production of La Bohèmemay be the respite you need. While technically this tragic love story begins in the lead-up to Christmas and it does snow, a tale of suspicion, jealousy and heartbreak will whisk you away from the festive merriment.
Set in wintry Paris in the 1930s, love blossoms between neighbours, writer Rodolpho and (sort-of) florist Mimi after a chance encounter in a power cut. Living the bohemian lifestyle in attic rooms overlooking the city, and crowded restaurants filled with wine and song, Rodolpho and best friend Marcello are quite content. But love seeks them out, turning their lives upside down, but as Winter turns to Spring death comes calling.
This fourth revival of Jonathan Miller’s 2009 production also marks the 40thanniversary of his first show with the English National Opera. On Isabella Bywater’s ingenious set, the world of bohemian Paris springs to life, first in the raised garret room belonging to the writer and his artist friend, then as Act I merges into Act II, the whole building rotates to create a bustling city street and the interior of their favourite café bar, before evoking dark alleyways in late Winter as the lovers prepare to part.
The era may be quite different, but there is something of Victor Hugo about Miller and Bywater’s approach, building on the lyrical intimacy of Puccini’s opera but grounding it among the poverty-stricken artists of the Paris underclass. In the same way that Hugo simultaneously shows individual stories and the epic sweep of history, so to this production of La Bohèmequietly says so much about living conditions, artistic desperation and inter-war struggle for stability.
Two love stories play-out quite differently side-by-side, first the romantic love of Rodolpho and Mimi, instantly drawn to one another with high ideals and a purity of passion that feels entirely genuine. This is contrasted with the earthier, more physical attraction between Marcello and Musetta who know exactly who they are and the nature of their connection, but Miller’s production will make you pine for the former while knowing that the honesty of the latter is far more sustainable.
Jonathan Tetelman gives his Rodolfo plenty of complexity, choosing to interpret his changing motivation more sympathetically than some productions have done. This Rodolfo is genuinely in love but driven to abandon Mimi and tortured by the inevitability of illness that he blames himself and his living conditions for inducing. Tetelman uses the exposure of his weakness to powerful effect in Act III, building to the final emotional conclusion in Act IV.
Natalya Romaniw has a much harder job as the gentle Mimi, a character who in the first half is little more than compliant and sweet. The couple have great chemistry throughout, but like Tetelman it is the wonderful Act III which gives Romaniw a chance to display not just her vocal range but the pain and desperation tinged with fear as she overhears a conversation that changes things irrevocably.
Among the surrounding cast, Nicholas Lester’s Marcello and Nadine Benjamin’s teasing Musetta, a wily fox with a plan, almost steal the show in Act II with a great comic scene where they try to catch each other’s attention. Benjamin along with Bozidar Smiljanic as Rodolpho’s musician friend Schaunard are graduates of the ENO’s talent development scheme, identifying future risings stars.
There are some sound problems in the first Act, and with the attic room set far back on the stage individual voices are often drowned out by the orchestra, which makes the surtitles invaluable, although the final scene in the same room doesn’t suffer. Miller’s command of the stage is impressive, creating plenty of intimacy on the Coliseum’s vast stage, while also managing the comic tones within the vast ensemble in Act II. So, if you want to hide from the garlands, the mistletoe and cracker jokes, this delightful production of La Bohèmeis the alternative Christmas show you need.
Runs until 22 February 2019 | Image: Robert Workman