It’s my experience that a successful bohème must tick 3 boxes; it needs excellent singing from the 6 main characters; undeniable chemistry between Mimi and Rodolfo; and it needs to make you shed a tear or two at the end. Bonus points for making the production fresh, and good production design but these are secondary to the three main criteria. It seems that the latest ENO bohème tried too hard to focus on these secondary criteria rather than making sure the essential boxes were ticked first.
The process of modernizing opera classics is not yet perfected. In some cases it works incredibly well and adds hugely to the production (“for example, see Jonathan Miller’s now mainstream Mafia Rigoletto). In others cases it doesn’t. Unfortunately ENO’s latest staging of bohème veers towards the latter..
In theory, the idea was not preposterous. Replacing Mimi’s outdated illness with a heroin addiction definitely updated the production and made it more relevant to today’s society as opposed to her original, outdated consumptive illness. The heroin first appears as Rodolfo stays behind at the garret (now a stark, white studio littered with bongs and carrier bags) to ‘finish a few lines’. Mimi enters and what was once one of the most touching and beautifully innocent scenes in opera is now replaced with a pair of junkies and their drug-addled infatuation with one another.
The Café Momus scene that follows the pair’s meeting is a busy, bustling feast for the eyes with the ENO chorus creating a fantastic atmosphere as they so often do. The production’s eccentricities continued as Rodolfo bought Mimi a pink wig rather than a traditional bonnet before they join the rest of the bohemians at a neon-lit diner-esque Café Momus. It is unclear whether the bright pink lights and bizarre figures in the scene are a figment of Mimi and Rodolfo’s drug-fuelled high or if it’s just the production’s attempt at modernisation. This lack of clarity continues into the second half as the heroin was occasionally referenced, for example, Marcello lifting Mimi’s sleeves indicating ‘track marks’, but she still dies from a particularly ‘consumption-y’ cough.
Though this new production still needs to have a few wrinkles ironed out, the music was, on the whole, still excellent. Particular highlights came from Corinne Winters as Mimi and Simon Butteriss as the double part of the equally sleazy Benoit and Alcindoro. The camaraderie between Rodolfo, Marcello, Colline and Schaunard was definitely there but on occasion the ensemble suffered. Although the chemistry between Winters and Zach Borichevsky (Rodolfo) was tangible, their heroin induced affair seemed to confuse and somewhat diminish the tenderness that has featured in more traditional productions.
Going by the initial tick-list outlined above, out of these three, I’d give the ENO’s latest production of La bohème, 1 and a half ticks; the chemistry between the two lovers was definitely there, regardless of what induced the love; some of the singing was indeed excellent, but there were some shaky moments that unfortunately do not grant an entire ‘tick’ earn only half a tick; and unfortunately not a tear was shed by the writer at the end which is usually the litmus test for any La bohème.
La bohème continues at the ENO until 26 November, book tickets here.
Written by Thoroughly Modern Missy.