Puccini’s La Bohème – English National Opera, The Coliseum, London WC2 . 3**** Clare Colvin

Puccini’s La Boheme is the work that frequently springs to mind when I’m asked for a recommendation by a first-time opera adventurer.  Which is odd, as the tale about impoverished students in Paris and their girlfriends – one of whom fatally succumbs to tuberculosis during the course of four acts – is a bit of a downer.

Giacomo Puccini’s transcendent score in his first great hit of the late 19th century opera “verismo” wins through by its emotional force that appeals to everyone who has ever been young and in love, whether in recent memory or looking back over the years.  Puccini himself drew on his music student days at Milan Conservatoire for the characters of aspiring young writer Rodolfo, artist  Marcello, musician Schaunard and philosopher Colline.

In tribute to Sir Jonathan Miller who directed several of English National Opera’s most successful productions, his 2009 production of La Bohème, in  Crispin Lord’s revival, returns to the Coliseum in ENO’s first complete season since the pandemic closed theatres worldwide two years ago.  Miller updated the era from Puccini’s original setting of Henri Murger’s novel “Scènes de la vie de bohème” to ninety years later.  Isabella Bywater’s set  of a 1930s Paris of narrow streets and grimy cafes is the opposite image of the City of Light.   Apart from the frenzied jollity of the Act Two Cafe Momus in the Latin Quarter, the students’ own neighbourhood is inhabited  mainly by the unemployed, whether day labourers or street walkers hoping to turn a trick.    

Irish soprano Sinéad Campbell-Wallace, makes a fine ENO debut as Mimi. She has a powerful and lyrical voice of beautiful clarity, and captures Mimi’s air of fragility and steely resolve – her frail seamstress practically marches Korean tenor David Junghoon Kim’s Rodolfo downstairs to join Christmas Eve dinner at Cafe Momus.  Baritone Charles Rice and mezzo Louise Alder are well-matched in the roles of artist Marcello and capricious on-off girlfriend Musetta.  Baritone Benson Wilson, sharing the role with Alex Otterburn, is the watchful observer of events as Schaunard, and bass William Thomas rich voiced Colline.  Simon Butteriss gets to be doubly mistreated, as  Benoit the hapless landlord and as Alcindoro, Musetta’s abused sugar-daddy.   Conducted with zest by Ben Glassberg, this is a worthwhile start to what we hope will be a confident new season. In repertoire to 27 February.

Conductor.   Ben Glassberg

Director.      Jonathan Miller

Revival director  Crispin Lord

Designer.     Isabella Bywater

Lighting      Jean Kalman

Revival lighting designer Martin Doone

Production photo  Genevieve Girling


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