La bohème is one of the most frequently-staged operas around. So does the latest outing at the English National Opera do it justice? Put simply, yes. And how.
This classic does not have the most complicated or original of central plots. Boy meets girl, the two fall in love, she dies painfully. So far, so opera. Those looking for happy endings should seek out a Disney DVD instead.
Director Natascha Metherell’s take on Jonathan Miller’s 2009 production is a musical blast with a couple of tweaks on the original. The setting has been moved forward a century to 1930s Paris and the libretto is all in English. While the ENO is not afraid to try out more experimental works, the reprise of Metherell’s version (last seen in 2013) is a welcome, if populist, move.
An interesting casting choice is Angel Blue, promoted to the lead role of the tragic Mimi from her appearance last year as Musetta. Ah, Musetta. Played here by Jennifer Holloway, she is the libertine who steals the second act and is a guilty pleasure that never fails to raise a sly smile. An ethical slut ahead of her time, she elegantly twists men around her slender fingers. Indeed, it is her charismatic sexual aura that gives the actions and reactions of wealthy lover Alcindoro (Andrew Shore) and on-off ex Marcello (George von Bergen) their depth and meaning. While Mimi and her lover Rodolfo (David Butt Philip) wail on with their Hallmark sentiments, Musetta lends the story much-needed earthy grit.
English is not really a language made for opera but Amanda Holden has bravely translated the libretto into it with a few fruity exclamations (“Bitch!”, “Slut!” and “Christ!”) as well as the occasional jarring descent into the modern vernacular, for example when we hear the proto-hipster bohemian flatmates talk about going “on the razzle”. The libretto is otherwise solid, especially when illustrating Mimi’s difficult dilemma in the third act and the tear-jerking finale.
The stage design deserves a review of its own. While most opera sets are a series of illustrated backgrounds and static objects for the performers to move around, the ENO has invested in a pair of revolving structures, evocatively creating the first and final acts’ apartment setting, the busy bar in the second and the forlorn street of the third. The cast move in and around and behind the set, bringing to life the depressing urban environment which overshadows Puccini’s original vision of La bohème.
From soup to nuts, this latest outing of the Puccini classic is one to savour. It simply gets better and better as the arias roll by. A restrained first act gives way to a bustling second act and from there we’re riding an emotion-fraught juggernaut all the way to the tragic ending. Buckle in.
La bohème continues at the ENO until 6 December. More information can be found on the official website.