Puccini La Boheme, English National Opera, London Coliseum

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The Independent Culture

There was no escaping the weather or unemployment issues this week - not even at the opera.

The snow was falling again in act three of Puccini's La Boheme as grumbling factory workers trudged to work through the cobbled streets of Paris in the early 1930s. But at least those that had jobs made it to work - which is more than can be said for London where too much of the wrong kind of snow had two nights earlier paralysed the capital and wiped out the official opening night of Jonathan Miller's first new staging at English National Opera for more than a decade.



A number of celebrated movie directors have been working in opera recently but none have striven for a naturalistic cinematic effect quite so diligently as Miller and his designer Isabella Bywater. Her emphasis on photographic period detail and her solid looking rotating sets enabled us quite literally to take a walk to the Café Momus between acts one and two - the effect very much like a cinematic pan or dissolve. Jean Kalman's lighting bathed everything in a cold monochromatic light. It looked pretty authentic. But only the Sky TV cameras could have given us what we so badly needed, especially in the first and last acts: close-ups.



One of the problems with sets on this scale is the lack of intimacy. The "bohemian" lads loft (and how desirable it would now be) was set too high and too far upstage to really draw us into this enormous space. The characters felt physically and vocally too remote; the space seemed to dissipate their energy. And apart from frequent visits to an open-doored latrine, when we were more than happy to keep our distance, I doubt the naturalism of the playing was always reading from the back of the house.



But you have to hand it to Miller, he does spare you the operatic clichés and observes human behaviour in ways that can be immensely telling. In act two, how revealing it was that Musetta (the excellent Hanan Alattar done up like Juliette Greco) directed the best part of her "scandalous street song" at Rudolfo. His acute embarrassment (part of it admittedly on behalf of his mate Marcello, the sturdy Roland Wood) told us so much about his "old fashioned" values and cunningly set up the rift between him and Mimi later in the opera.



Rudolfo's vulnerability is as crucial to the opera as Mimi's failing health and Alfie Boe's slightly earnest, boyish charm was through and through honest from start to tragic finish. It's a light lyric voice for this house but the intensity and truthfulness he communicates is irresistible. It's a slightly dirty word nowadays, but his sincerity shines through. You can see why Baz Luhrmann cast him snapped him up for his Broadway production.



Making the reverse trip across the pond for her British debut was the aptly named Melody Moore as Mimi. This young lady is special. She has the most distinctive dark complexion to her voice and she sings and phrases with real fantasy. She alone really filled the house and hearing the voice open to greet the coming spring in her act one aria was for sure one of the high spots of the evening.



The other, of course, was that final scene. Miller played this very low key and for real with Moore extraordinarily convincing in catching the glacial calm of approaching death. She dies, of course, unnoticed - except by the orchestra - but in that final exchange of dialogue (a Puccini masterstroke) Alfie Boe's quiet disbelief was entirely unexpected and the more moving for it. Yes, a close-up would have been nice.

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