We all know La Bohème. We know the melodies. We know the plot. We remember the opulent unfurling of embroidered flowers, the brittle chill of a midwinter morning, the weary song of the factory girls, the futile exchange of earrings and overcoats for medicine, the blunt cosh of anguish at the close. But how well do we know Mimi, Rodolfo, Musetta and Marcello? Their job descriptions are plain enough: seamstress, poet, singer, painter. Yet their personalities are ill-formed and porous, cross-infected by each other's pride and jealousy as much as each other's generosity and joy.
Set in the zinc-grey demi-monde of Brassaï's Paris de nuit, Jonathan Miller's English National Opera production of La Bohème has potential to mature and grow through multiple revivals and cast changes. Handsomely designed by Isabella Bywater, a brace of two-storey constructions revolve to form the artists' garret, the busy pavement outside the Café Momus, and the bleak alleys near the Barrière d'Enfer. This is a staging that can accommodate sentiment and social critique. At the moment, however, it has neither. Miller has scrubbed away a century of artificial snow and glycerine tears from our eyes, but it is far from clear what he wants us to see.
The production could be read as a raspberry to romance or an essay on Puccini's unevenly characterised bohemian composites. Miller mercilessly exposes their contradictions, leaving us with a Mimi (Melody Moore) less trustworthy than his Musetta (Hanan Alattar), and a Rodolfo (Alfie Boe) who is a self-pitying shadow of Marcello (Roland Wood). More self-aware, sympathetic and, finally, less materialistic than Mimi, Musetta alone escapes directorial censure. A vamp with Louise Brooks hair and the kind of hourglass figure that would make a man forget what time it is, Alattar is also the only performer to convey the 1930s in her movements.
Unflatteringly helmeted in a Marcel Wave and sturdily upholstered in an Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon tea dress, Moore's carefully sung Mimi is a vain fantasist, pressing for a necklace, new gloves, independence, love. "Weak-handsome", to use the Hollywood terminology, Boe's bright-toned Rodolfo is near-transparent by comparison. Only when all four lovers sing together, in the still-astonishing simultaneous break-up and make-up quartet of Act III, do you see their vulnerability, how young and silly they are, and how craftily Puccini supports or undermines their words.
Is it possible to de-sentimentalise La Bohème and still move an audience? I think it is, but it doesn't quite happen here. I have no problem with weeping over a mutually mismanaged love affair. I simply didn't believe that this Mimi and Rodolfo fancied each other enough to last one night, let alone two months. Out-sung and outacted by Wood and Alattar, Pauls Putnins's Colline and David Stout's Schaunard are anonymous archetypes; the beautifully choreographed ballet of waiters and patrons in the Café Momus is let down by sluggish traffic outside, while Richard Angas's Alcindoro is so shoutily apoplectic that I feared for his health.
Many of these issues can be resolved as the run continues. The modern plumpness of the starving artists will be trickier to address. But there is an airy disengagement in Miller's direction that sits ill with the furious intensity of Miguel Harth-Bedoya's conducting. However uncommitted or dishonest the words may be, he persuades us to collude in the fantasy: to inhale the scent of Mimi's embroidered roses, to believe the declarations of eternal fidelity, to take the sucker punch of the last terrible bars, to relish every detail of the instrumentation, to suspend disbelief where Miller solicits scepticism. On stage, ENO's Bohème has promise. In the pit, that promise has been realised already.
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