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.