Tosca, ENO, October 2016

Tosca is a classic and returns to the great stages more regularly than most operas. After writing my university dissertation on the topic and performing as the ‘Shepherd Boy’ as a child, I have a great fondness for this Puccini masterpiece. And so, when the invitation pinging into my inbox, I immediately knew I had to clear my diary for the occasion of opening night.

Tosca ENO

We took our seats (wonderfully central in the stalls) and my friend asked me to outline the narrative. I struggled to offer up anything comprehensive, despite once studying the score in detail. The truth is, this opera is not about the story so much, it is the all-consuming music which captivates the audience. For this Catherine Malfitano revival at the ENO the cast were lead by revival director Donna Stirrup and Oleg Caetani conducts the confident and boisterous orchestra.

As the overture blasted out from the pit I was instantly entranced, and the worries from the day melted away. I was relieved to see the period set as it always unhinges me a bit to see classics set in the modern day. The creative team, comprising of designer Frank Philip Schlössmann, costume designer Gideon Davey and lighting designer David Martin Jacques did a great job… setting a dramatic and atmospheric scene for the turbulent love story.

Welsh tenor Gwyn Hughes Jones reprises his role as Cavaradossi, and the part feels very safe in his hands. Gwyn’s voice is powerful with a velvety rich tone, it is a pleasure to listen to from start to finish. He is matched by the alluring American singer Keri Alkema as Tosca, whose vocals are bold and beautiful though her spoken voice is more difficult to understand. Craig Colclough is suitably gleeful and chilling as Scarpia, though the volume of his voice is rather lack-lustre in comparison to the leading couple.

This acclaimed rendition of Tosca is powerful to watch, and wonderful to feel part of. As Tosca takes her final backwards leap I felt myself breathe out.. this opera is an emotional rollercoaster, but it is a journey I always love from curtain up to lights out.

Tosca opened on Monday 3 October 2016 at 7.30pm for 13 performances 3, 12, 14, 20, 25 October, 22, 24, 29 November, 1 December at 7.30pm, 8 October at 6.30pm, 22 October, 26 November, 3 December at 3pm.

THOROUGHLY MODERN MISSY – La bohème, ENO

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.

THOROUGHLY MODERN MISSY: La Boheme, ENO

On one of the few cold days this London autumn, it seemed only fitting to see the curtain sweep up to display a freezing Christmas Eve in the Latin Quarter of Paris. The 29th of October marked the opening night of the ENO’s 2014 production of Jonathan Miller’s La Boheme. Under the expert direction of Natasha Metherell and with a vibrant cast, rich with ENO family members, the highly anticipated production of Puccini’s classic was already a winner before a word had been sung. Just a few weeks following Richard Jones’s critically acclaimed Girl of the Golden West at the ENO, which I also reviewed, I was curious to see how the Puccini offerings would compare. My conclusion? The ENO know how to do Puccini. Though the two productions bare little resemblance to one another (apart from the composer) the ENO has brought a beauty to both that is a testament to the professional and innovative nature of the company.

Any company will find it challenging to create an up-to-date production of a classic like La Boheme without resorting to gimmicks. Though other productions have tried to set the scene in hyper-contemporary worlds, Miller’s production is set in the 1930s, enabling the ‘old-fashioned’ romance of Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica’s libretto to still be believable. The set, designed by Isabella Bywater, was like a decrepit, interactive doll house, at first showing Rodolfo and friends’ crumbling bohemian apartment, then cleverly twisting and turning to reveal the Cafe Momus on a busy thoroughfare of Paris for the second act.

One of the most enjoyable parts of the entire production was the chemistry between the main singers. The clear friendship between the singers themselves translated so well into their characters, enriching the performance. Not only was the camaraderie there in high spirits, but the romantic chemistry was tangible between both Rodolfo (David Butt Philip) and Mimi (Angel Blue) and Marcello (George von Bergen) and Musetta (Jennifer Holloway). For a production like Boheme these relationships are essential and this production very much delivered. The scene where this was first felt was the famous ‘flirtation’ scene between Mimi and Rodolfo. This scene holds one of the most famous arias and duets in opera so the pressure was on, not that you would know it from the charming acting and interaction between the two singers. David Butt Phillip sang a stupendous ‘Che gelida manina’ with an incredibly long stretch of applause following, and Angel Blue joined her co-star with the same quality of singing in the famous ‘O Soave Fanciulla’ duet which cemented this production into one of high quality.

The intimate flirtation scene is juxtaposed with the start of the second act which turns into a kind of ‘Where’s Wally’ on stage looking for the main characters in the huge crowd of chorus, enacting last minute Christmas shopping panic. This all takes place on the rotated set, showing a busy street on Christmas Eve. It is in this act that the audience are introduced to Jennifer Holloway’s flirtatious and passionate Musetta. Her ‘Quando m’en vo’ aria is sung to perfection, at least the best that I have heard. After a comical interlude with her wealthy ‘patron’, Musetta falls back into the arms of her love, Marcello.

It was my first time hearing the opera in English which took some getting used to, especially with the famous arias. However, the singers embraced the ‘English-only’ protocol of the ENO and performed with as much European passion as if it had been performed in its original Italian narrative.

Though it is difficult to create a totally fresh La Boheme these days, the reason for going to this highly anticipated production is not the heartbreaking story but those who perform it. The cast was generally strong, however, it was the three most prominent performers who shone the most; George von Bergen, who performed Marcello’s role with a sensitivity that I have not seen previously, David Butt Phillips who triumphed with Rodolfo and has a bright future ahead of him, and Angel Blue, who also released her first solo CD the same night, who captured the audience singing Mimi’s famous line ‘mi chiamano Mimi’ (They call me Mimi) and it is my feeling that Angel Blue shall be called Mimi in many Boheme productions to come.

La Boheme continues until 6 December, book here.

Written by Thoroughly Modern Missy, Angelica Bomford.