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La Bohème

28 November 2018

Doomed Romance Dusted with Snow

La Bohème

by Giacomo Puccini, libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, based on a novel by Henri Murger

English National Opera, London Coliseum until 22nd February

Review by Georgia Renwick

It’s that time of year again …  The fires are lit (well, the heating is on at least!), the heavy coats are out of hibernation and we all dream of (or dread) a fresh coating of snow. It is important I stress that I welcome snow, before likening its return to that of La Bohème at The Colosseum; you half expect it, but are still delighted by that first flurry. As the first notes of Puccini’s quintessential winter opera quiver into the cavernous opera house, you can virtually hear the audience in their plush velvet seats sigh in blissful anticipation.

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This production marks English National Opera’s fourth revival of director Jonathan Miller’s 2009  La Bohème, set charmingly in 1930s Paris. It also coincides with the forty-year anniversary of Miller’s ENO directional debut. It is by no means unusual for favourite versions of this opera to be revived time and time again, the Royal Opera House called “final curtain” on their 41-year-old John Copley production only a couple of years ago, and there are many qualities not only in the classic story but in this Miller production that I can anticipate enduring for years to come.

Bohème12The modern English language translation by Amanda Holden is sparky and genuinely funny, the young bohemian artists under Miller’s direction cavorting and playful. They play-fight physically, which balances beautifully with their heavy romanticism. They are believable as young men trying to make a go of their craft, pitted against the poverty and despondency of inter-war Paris and the threat of dreaded tuberculosis.

The set is a living, breathing dolls’ house: full-scale rooms, easily possible at The Coliseum, with intricate details that draw you in. An eager eye (and a good seat) and you can spy drying paintbrushes and soiled linens. In Act Two the artists’ studio opens out, pushed by costumed stagehands, into Cafe Momus, where dozens of singers flood the stage to bring to life Christmas Eve in Paris. It is a spectacle the principal characters, quite literally, get lost in. You would be foolish in fact, to let them distract you from the dozens of stories taking place all around them. Pickpockets skulk, lovers disappear into the night or behind closed doors, parents chase their over-excited children, delirious at the sight of toy drums and sugar canes. The attention to detail in Miller’s Bohème is true nostalgic bliss, made to get lost in.

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Of course, La Bohème endures but it has long had the popular vote. Indeed, it’s opening in 1896 saw such popularity it went against Puccini’s reputation in critical circles. A quote from Roger Parker’s insightful programme notes from critic Eduard Hanslick reads “This is new, a sensational break with the last romantic and artistic traditions in opera”. It is clear in the context of his full review, he did not intend this as a compliment. Brought forward a few decades it may be, Miller’s production still relies aesthetically on sentimentality and nostalgia, which does belie its original impact. For a simple seamstress, Mimi’s neat pin-curls are perhaps a little too perfect for her to be believably impoverished, in fact, they look enviably glossy.

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There have been versions of La Bohème which have radically changed the aesthetic to fit the times, and offer the story to a new, and non-opera-going audiences. Robin Norton-Hale’s 2009 version at the 35-seater Cockpit Tavern pub theatre, went on to win an Olivier in 2011 with its stripped back modern day production set in a messy student flat in Kilburn. Bohème15Appearing in another guise, the late Jonathan Larson’s 1990s cult rock-opera RENT, is in fact based very closely on La Bohème with Tuberculosis transposed for AIDS, and poets and painters for aspiring musicians and film makers. These productions serve to prove that the story, in its many versions, endures and will doubtless continue to do so in more yet-to-be-realised stagings and in other formats.

Naturally, ENO has evolved and modernised in many ways outside of the staging of this production (you may have seen the bright pink My Little Pony poster promoting their latest production of Salome) and is of course not only concerned with bringing back, but with pushing forward. On opening night, two young, rising-star performers make their ENO debut here in the primary roles of the two lovers, Rudolfo and Mimi: Chilean born, American trained and devilishly handsome tenor Jonathan Tetelam and mesmerising Welsh talent Natalya Romaniw, respectively. It’s a winning combination of traditional material, nostalgic staging and fresh blood.

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As one of the longest continually played operas of all time, La Bohème isn’t going anywhere, but it’s a wonderful time of the year to be whirled by this doomed romance, dusted with snow.

Georgia Renwick
November 2018

Photography by Robert Workman

 

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From → Opera, Reviews

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