La bohËme at ENO

Miller has often been over-praised,
particularly by those ‘of a certain age’, apparently unaware or unwilling
to accept that the world has moved on from the 1960s of their youth; indeed,
Miller’s Royal
Opera CosÏ fan tutte
is not simply bad, but one of the most
objectionable stagings I have seen of anything. This BohËme,
whilst hardly groundbreaking, does its job reasonably enough. For some reason,
the action is updated to the Paris of the 1930s. Beyond imparting a certain
cinematic quality — though not necessarily nearly so much as Miller and his
designer, Isabella Bywater seem to think it does — it is not clear what is
gained, but nor for that matter is a great deal lost. An individual’s
fondness for the photography of George BrassaÔ does not in itself seem to me
justification for a production, but anyway… The characters are for well
directed on stage, for which revival director, Natascha Metherell should
doubtless receive much of the credit. (Both Metherell and Miller appeared on
stage to take a bow.) Occasionally, I wondered whether the action were a little
too prey to domestification of the wrong way; the meeting between Rodolfo and
MimÏ is decidedly low-key, more akin to a neighbourhood watch meeting than an
ignition of passion. However, the selfishness of ‘Bohemian’ youth comes
across at least as strongly as I can recall upon other occasions: are not these
boys to some extent playing at poverty, whilst MimÏ’s suffering is the real

Described in the publicity blurb as a ‘cast of young British talent’,
that is for the most part what it is. I have little patience with those who
castigate ENO — or Covent Garden, for that matter — for ‘failing to
promote British artists’. The arts world has, let us be grateful, yet to
capitulate to the insidious yet hysterical nationalism pervading much of our
political class and media. What we want are singers, artists in general, who
are good, and preferably more than that. With the exception of Gwyn Hughes
Jones, we did pretty well. Though his Rodolfo improved somewhat during the
third and fourth acts, and was not without sensitivity, there was too much that
was simply crude, almost an allegedly ‘Italianate’ parody, or strangely
faceless. The vacuum extended to stage presence too; it would have been
well-nigh impossible to believe in him as a Romantic lead. Kate Valentine’s
MimÏ, on the other hand, was a credit to her and to ENO. Nobility of spirit
was allied to sterling, necessary musical values of phrasing and tonal
variegation. It was a delight to make the acquaintance of the charismatic
American singer, the splendidly named Angel Blue (an exception in terms of
nationality, but certainly not quality). She sang as well as she acted, holding
the stage without effort, imparting both ‘artistic’ superiority to Musetta
as singer and, increasingly, warm humanity to her as woman. Richard
Burkhard’s Marcello impressed too, as did the excellently sung — and acted
— Colline of Andrew Craig Brown and Schaunard of Duncan Rock. It was a pity
that Simon Butteriss over-acted — ‘silly voice’ rather than expression of
the text through singing — in the role of Benoit; maybe he was doing so under
orders. A greater pity was the banality of Amanda Holden’s translation;
making Puccini sound satisfactory in English is not the easiest of tasks, but
too often, a tin ear revealed itself in the straightforward incompatibility of
words and vocal line.

Oleg Caetani made a very welcome return to the Coliseum. His direction of
the ENO Orchestra was splendid, rich in tone — sometimes, a little more,
alla Daniele Gatti, would have been appreciated there, but then Gatti,
last summer, had the Vienna Philharmonic
— but above all, dramatically
alert. Temptations to linger, to sentimentalise, were eschewed, without
draining the drama of its lifeblood. Wagnerisms — I noticed some especially
Tristan-esque progressions — and modernisms were not necessarily underlined,
yet, given Caetani’s ear for balance and line, caught one’s ear
nevertheless. I should love one day to hear a properly modernistic
BohËme — or Tosca. This was not it, but refusal to play to
the gallery, and underlining of solid, yet certainly not stolid, musical
virtues proved a great relief for a work in which superficial gloss can all too
readily hold sway. Choral singing and direction of the chorus also proved
estimable throughout.

Mark Berry

Click here for a photo gallery of this production.

Cast and production information:

Marcello: Richard Burkhard; Rodolfo: Gwyn Hughes Jones; Colline:
Andrew Craig Brown; Schaunard: Duncan Rock; Benoit: Simon Butteriss; MimÏ:
Kate Valentine; Parpignol: Philip Daggett; Musetta: Angel Blue; Alcindoro:
Simon Butteriss; Policeman: Paul Sheehan; Foreman; Andrew Tinkler. Jonathan
Miller (director); Natascha Metherell (revival director); Isabella Bywater
(designs); Jean Kalman, Kevin Sleep (lighting). Orchestra and Chorus (chorus
master: Genevieve Ellis) of the English National Opera/Oleg Caetani
(conductor). The Coliseum, London, 29.4.2013.

image_description=Richard Burkhard, Gwyn Hughes Jones, Kate Valentine, Duncan Rock, Andrew Craig Brown (L-R) [Photo by Donald Cooper courtesy of English National Opera]
product_title=Giacomo Puccini: La bohËme
product_by=A review by Mark Berry
product_id=Above: Richard Burkhard, Gwyn Hughes Jones, Kate Valentine, Duncan Rock, Andrew Craig Brown (L-R) [Photo by Donald Cooper courtesy of English National Opera]