wed 22/11/2017

La Bohème, English National Opera | reviews, news & interviews

La Bohème, English National Opera

La Bohème, English National Opera

Heroin-blighted update of Puccini's realistic tragicomedy is no hit, and sludgily conducted

Ashley Riches' Schaunard brings Rodolfo (Zach Borichevsky) a blanket for the dying Mimì (Corinne Winters)All images by Tristram Kenton for ENO

Kurt Cobain’s “Smells like Teen Spirit’ cued a realistic song and drink routine for Chekhov’s Three Sisters in a hit-and-miss update by director Benedict Andrews. This one, with a Puccini soundtrack unsupportively conducted by Xian Zhang, smells more like routine spirit with a couple of jolts along the way, a sludgy requiem for drug-fuelled twenty-somethings.

Moving forward in time the action of Puccini’s inspiration, Henri Murger’s still fresh and authentic memories of bohemian youth in 1830s Paris, is more the rule than the exception now. The late Steven Pimlott did it with more infill at ENO than his successor Jonathan Miller; David McVicar made it real and contemporary at Glyndebourne, but a DVD of Baz Luhrmann’s Opera Australia production shows that his is the one we should have had here.

Fellow Antipodean Andrews lends another turn of the screw by having Rodolfo conjure his poetic “castles in the air” by getting new acquaintance Mimì to pull the rubber tight around his arm while he injects; she knows what to do, it seems, and he returns the compliment. So they get their “romance” in Puccini’s wonderful construction of two aria-narratives and a duet on a high, while the audience can only be turned off by what should be touching, unassisted love at first sight (Winters and Borichevsky pictured below).

Scene from ENO La BohemeAt least you don’t have to take the moonlight literally, if it's part of the fix, while it’s been a bit hard to accept any fumbling in the dark when it’s still a winter’s day beyond the frosted studio windows and only the characters are in silhouette (hard to see Rodolfo’s face for the first 10 or so minutes). Amanda Holden's not always well-fitting translation caters for some of the updated details (a pink wig for Mimì rather than a bonnet; no stairs for her to climb to the artists' studio).

Musically, all is not right at this point either. Zach Borichevsky’s tall, handsome poet has a lightish and mostly pleasing tenor voice not sufficiently grounded to guarantee support; one can only presume he got the crucial top C before the first night (if it's a risk, there's no need for the traditional tenuto on the quaver not in Puccini's score). When he didn't last night, Zhang should have had the theatrical nous to move straight on, but waited for applause that didn’t come, and then failed to lend sympathetic support to Corinne Winters’ dark-voiced “They call me Mimì”, vocally a much more secure proposition.

Zhang is a conductor with good symphonic instincts, aided by ENO strings on glowing current form, but very little operatic experience. It sounds like she’d been listening to Karajan’s opulent Puccini rather than Beecham’s authentic sparkle, and the singers were constantly left wanting to move the music-drama on. Darker in tone than when she sang Violetta for ENO, Winters really opens up in the third act, though it's a shame there's no real plangency in the voice, and again her aria of farewell was disastrously out of synch last night with the orchestra, for which Zhang must take the blame. You might do better to pick a performance when house conductor Martin Fitzpatrick takes over; he'll have a much better idea how to co-ordinate singers and players in an effectively flowing whole.

Rhian Lois in La BohemeThe third act is generally cleaner and clearer, if along more traditional lines. Johannes Schütz's set designs and Jon Clark's lighting at last achieve some atmosphere. The Café Momus act before it, though, is a mess. Since it launches, after too long a curtain-down, on the drugged lovers still lying on the floor of the studio, you think it might be a hallucination, but apparently not – just a loosely directed nightmare with too much vaguely happening at the front of the stage. Our pair soon show no signs of their recent hit. Rhian Lois (pictured above), always a sparky singing actress, brightens things up with her Musetta, but why choose a light soprano voice when you could have a fuller-toned, more realistic characterisation of a girl who may be mixed-up but is capable of deeper feelings and may really love her Marcello?

Neither do the other Bohemians quite make the impact they should. There’s a dangerous spread in Duncan Rock’s voice now, though his Marcello is likeable; Ashley Riches’ Schaunard has a more present sound than Nicholas Masters as Colline, and the Act Four horseplay is lively, but still not enough.

By Act Four, despite the revelation that this is no garret but a ground-floor lodging with kids playing in leafy grounds outside, it’s Bohème-by-numbers. Puccini’s subtle depiction of friends gathering round to do all they can for the dying Mimì should be fairly indestructible, and Andrews thankfully doesn’t meddle with it. Still, I wonder if there was a wet eye in the house last night. It looks like it might be left to Richard Jones – due to stage a much-heralded successor to the John Copley stalwart at the Royal Opera next season – to say something really new but still true about this usually unsubduable masterpiece.

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