La Bohème, English National Opera, ENO, London Coliseum, November 2018

Thank goodness for this fourth revival of Jonathan Miller’s staging, replacing the ill-advised new production of 2015 where the ‘Bohemians’ were druggies shooting up on a brightly lit stage. Isabella Bywater’s excellent sets and Jean Kalman’s dark lighting recall a time when life hung by a more slender thread, candles lit up intimate surroundings, and warmth on a winter evening might be better found at a café rather than a cold attic apartment. I love the way the components of the set revolve to take us from Act I to II, and from Act III to IV — true theatre without the pretence of a reality show.

Rodolfo and Mimi, all images ENO/ Robert Workman

Altogether a wonderful evening under the baton of Alexander Joel. His musical dynamics, true to the composer’s intent, fully brought out the emotional heft of Puccini’s score. So too did Welsh soprano Natalya Romaniw as Mimi, her phrasing, the warmth of her voice, and the wonderful orchestral support bringing a lump to my throat at times. As her lover Rodolfo, Jonathan Tetelman in his European debut seemed at times to be straining to fill the large auditorium, but his voice has a wonderful Italianate tenor ring to it, and we shall doubtless hear more of this extremely handsome young man.

Outside Café Momus

The other ‘Bohemians’ made a fine team, with the excellent Nicholas Lester singing a strongly sympathetic Marcello, ENO Harewood Artist Božidar Smiljanić an engaging Schaunard, and David Soar a solemn and generous bass as Colline. As Musetta, Nadine Benjamin was vocally strong but seemed to have stepped on stage from another opera with her histrionic hand movements in the middle acts, but Gilbert and Sullivan expert Simon Buttriss was a delight as both Benoit the landlord and Musetta’s elderly beau Alcindoro, his witty estuary accent fitting both roles to a tee.

Rambunctious ‘Bohemians’ before Mimi’s arrival in Act IV

Here is an advantage of doing opera in English translation, though I do rather wish that the ENO would stage such well-known and popular works in the original language, now that we have surtitles. I love the use of orchestra members playing in the marching band of Act II, and the chorus, actors and children provided superb support for the Café Momus scene, with chorus member David Newman delivering a very fine vignette as the toy seller Parpignol.

Mimi’s young life ends

Jonathan Miller’s production, last seen in 2014, is now welcomed back for a long run — performances continue on various dates until 22 February — for details click here.

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