La Bohème, English National Opera, ENO, London Coliseum, October 2015Posted on 17 October 2015
Bohemia in Murger’s Scènes de la vie de bohème is a state of mind, rather than a Central European province, so setting it in modern times rather than mid-nineteenth century Paris could work very well. But Benedict Andrews, who made his name as a theatre and film director, has created a staging that seems to treat the music as background.
In Act I, Mimi hovers near the door to the flat, avoiding Benoit as he comes and goes, and the friends as they exit for the Café. She and Rodolfo shoot up with drugs, and during his first aria about being a poet she falls asleep. After a brief pause, whether for effect or applause I know not, she tells him about herself while he falls asleep. Before joining the others they make out on the floor, but the thrill of hesitancy and expectancy is lost.
In Act II the huge moving set, and movements of the performers, seemed too contrived and the excellent children’s chorus was the most memorable aspect of this low voltage fun. The bleak Act III with its warming flames was far better, but back in the bohemians’ apartment for Act IV the frost that covered window of the first act has cleared and we see children playing outside in the warm glow of late afternoon. This clever theatrical contrast with Mimi’s impending death might work well in a play but did not suit the music, and the fooling around among the four young men lacked its usual lightness. That is where the contrast should come, and it reflects the main flaw of Andrews’ production — its inability to leverage the music to theatrical and dramatic effect.
The singers did their best, with Corinne Winters showing some of the power and passion that made her performances in ENO’s 2013 Traviata and 2014 Benvenuto Cellini so memorable, and with Duncan Rock as a red-blooded Marcello their Act III duet produced the most gripping emotional moment of the performance. This is not how it should be, and Zach Borichevsky’s Rodolfo lacked chemistry with Mimi, and was unable to sustain much emotional force. A nicely nuanced performance of Musetta by Rhian Lois, with fine support from Schaunard (Ashley Riches) and Colline (Nicholas Masters), who produced an excellent coat aria in Act IV.
Unfortunately the warmth and emotional grip of the music seemed sadly lacking under conductor Xian Zhang, and surely the ENO could find two British singers capable of giving more depth to Mimi and Rodolfo. With a cold production, and Amanda Holden’s rather too pretentiously modern translation, this was a disappointment.
Performances continue on various dates until November 26 — for details click here.