Thursday, 29 November 2018

La bohème, English National Opera, 26 November 2018


Coliseum

Images: Robert Workman


Marcello – Nicholas Lester
Rodolfo – Jonathan Tetelman
Colline – David Soar
Schaunard – Božidar Smiljanić
Benoît – Simon Butteriss
Mimì – Natalya Romaniw
Parpignol – David Newman
Musetta – Nadine Benjamin
Alcindoro – Simon Butteriss
Policeman – Paul Sheehan
Official – Andrew Tinkler

Jonathan Miller (director)
Natascha Metherell (revival director)
Isabella Bywater (set designs)
Jean Kalman (lighting)
Kevin Sleep (revival lighting)

Chorus of the English National Opera (chorus master: Mark Biggins)
Orchestra of the English National Opera
Alexander Joel (conductor)




And still they come. The last opera I saw during my near-year of liberation from Poundland was La bohème at the Deutsche Oper. No year goes by without multiple opportunities to see it; few years now go by without my taking at least one of those opportunities. Indeed, I see that I shall now have gone to Jonathan Miller’s staging on three of its five (!) outings since it was first seen at ENO in 2009. Is there a degree of overkill, especially when it comes to a far from adventurous production? Perhaps, although I am well aware of the (alleged) reasons for a company performing the opera so frequently. Do they add up, though? Judging by the number of empty seats at the Coliseum on this, the first night, I am not sure that they do. Might that indicate that it is time to give the work a rest or a new production? Again, perhaps, although what in the present climate would be an adequate substitute for box-office certainty? Perhaps there is no longer any such thing. Is that a bad thing? For a company struggling with declining funding and years of mismanagement – remember the self-styled ‘She-E-O’, Cressida Pollock, granting interviews about how she liked to relax with a bottle of wine whilst wearing her favourite training shoes, at the same time as attempting to sack the chorus? – the answer would seem to be yes. On the other hand, might it ultimately be a prod towards diversity of repertoire, towards taking Puccini as something more artistically serious than a box-office certainty, towards asking whether a performance in an often jarring English translation vaguely ‘after’ Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica is really the best way to ‘sell’ as well as to perform this work to a multicultural audience? Perhaps. We shall see.




One very welcome aspect of this performance – and possible justification for retaining the production a little while longer – was the opportunity it granted, well grasped indeed, to a young cast including two of ENO’s Harewood Artists: Nadine Benjamin and Božidar Smiljanić. Benjamin’s Musetta is very much her own woman, no mere memory of other Musettas we have heard – or claim to have heard (‘does not efface post-war memories of Dame Ermintrude Heckmondthwike, “Ermie” we called her…’). Not that she was different for the sake of it, quite the contrary, the crucial facets of Musetta’s character coming through bright and clear, but fresh too, very much an acquaintance as well as a reacquaintaince – and a vocal acquaintance too.  Smiljanić is likewise an able actor and impressed greatly both as soloist, insofar as possible for a Schaunard, and in ensemble. Likewise David Soar as Colline, his final-act moment something truly to savour. Nicholas Lester’s Marcello was definitely a cut above the average, rich and, where appropriate, ardent of tone, hinting cleverly at far more to the character than we ever officially learn (surely so much of the trick to a compelling Puccini performance). Simon Butteriss’s comedic turns as Benoît and Alcindoro even had a doubter such as I consider the approach (Miller’s, I suspect, more than the artist’s) perfectly justified.




Last yet anything but least, our pair of star-crossed lovers, played by Jonathan Tetelman and Natalya Romaniw, showed themselves (mostly) sensitive artists who could yet project to the back of the largest of theatres. (Alas, the Coliseum remains not the least of ENO’s problems, whatever audience members ‘of a certain age’ might claim.) Romaniw’s Mimì proved perhaps the more moving early on, but that is more likely a consequence of the opera itself than of any great performative disparity; both certainly moved in the final tragedy of the work’s final minutes. If only they had not on occasion – under instruction, I suspect – played to the gallery, treating their ‘big moments’ as stand-alone arias. The real culprit here, I think, was Alexander Joel. His conducting of the ever-excellent ENO Orchestra was incisive and mostly unsentimental, but he seemed incapable of thinking – or at least projecting – a greater unity to each act, let alone to the score as a whole. Of Puccini’s ‘symphonism’, we heard little or nothing.




As for Miller’s production, ably revived by Natascha Metherell – who surely deserved a curtain call – it is what it is. Paris updated to the thirties looks beautiful, occasionally desperate too; Personenregie is keen. As mentioned above, I am more reconciled to its comedy than I first was. Moreover, I rather like – some do not – the glimpses we catch of characters off the set as such, carrying on with their lives. Something a little challenging or interesting, though, would surely not go amiss in the future. As yet, few if any directors seem to have matched Stefan Herheim’s challenge in his superlative Norwegian Opera production, let alone gone beyond it. Will time tell? Perhaps.

1 comment:

John said...

I thought Puccini was pretty much "uninterpretable" until I saw the Herrheim Boheme. Since then I've seen a few other creditable attempts to make something of warhorses. Philip Himmelmann's Tosca for Baden-Baden being another good one.