Ample room for hedonism and despair in the other 'Bohÿme'

<i>La Boh&Atilde;&iquest;me</i> | Coliseum, London <i>Jane Eyre</i> | Linbury Theatre, London Schiff/Andsnes | Wigmore Hall, London <i>Cutting Edge </i>| Warehouse, London
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The Independent Culture

History tells us that Ruggero Leoncavallo was the first to think of making an opera from Henri Murger's novel Scÿnes de la vie de Bohÿme. Nevertheless Puccini's La Bohÿme reached the stage a year before Leoncavallo's, in 1896, and has held sway ever since, although it's no unflawed masterpiece. So intent was Puccini on delineating a distinct mood for each of his four acts that they can seem separate dramas, with no emotional thread connecting them.

History tells us that Ruggero Leoncavallo was the first to think of making an opera from Henri Murger's novel Scÿnes de la vie de Bohÿme. Nevertheless Puccini's La Bohÿme reached the stage a year before Leoncavallo's, in 1896, and has held sway ever since, although it's no unflawed masterpiece. So intent was Puccini on delineating a distinct mood for each of his four acts that they can seem separate dramas, with no emotional thread connecting them.

The chief problems with Leoncavallo's La Bohÿme (the composer wrote his own libretto) are that it lacks Puccini's gift for making melody work at fever pitch; and that, where Puccini leaves holes in his narrative, Leoncavallo meticulously joins all the dots, so that the opening acts take forever to tell us that the bohemians are party people. Yet as Tim Albery's new English National Opera production demonstrates, the opera has its moments. His staging, evoking hippiedom's swan song circa 1971, bustles speedily through the dramaturgical congestion of the bohemians' hedonism while allowing ample space for their descent into despair.

Where Puccini focuses on Mimi and Rodolfo, Leoncavallo distributes the narrative weight more equitably. Musetta becomes much less the tart with a heart, much more the emotional fulcrum, not only in her affair with Marcello, but in her sisterly relationship with Mimi. She is the only character who sees where things are going. At ENO, Christine Rice captures Musetta's vivacity and the abjection, in her physical bearing as much as in her richly expressive, warmly idiomatic singing.

Still, this is an ensemble piece, and this ensemble works hard, helped by Mark Shanahan's sympathetic conducting. In fact, as the dandyish Schaunard, Paul Whelan works almost too hard. He more or less MCs the opening acts, and, partly because he's tallest and loudest, his presence becomes overbearing. He remains, though, a remarkable singing actor. As Marcello, Rhys Meirion shows he can do the singing bit, although the acting remains on the wrong side of stiff; while Sandra Ford plays Mimi as demure and out of her depth. Her death is then all the more affecting: when she sings "I don't want to die," the impact is, momentarily, as devastating as anything in Puccini. No neglected masterpiece, perhaps, but in this production, with this cast, a proper theatrical experience.

Puccini and Leoncavallo knew what opera should be. Contemporary composers have no such certainty, which is not to say that individual operas don't "solve" the problems. I'm not sure whether Michael Berkeley's Jane Eyre is among them. David Malouf's libretto skilfully summarises the plot, but with a syntactic density that defies music. Accordingly Berkeley's tiny orchestra (conducted by Michael Rafferty) carries the expressive burden, while the vocal writing struggles against lines like "I in my long passion and punishment of living bound to this mad woman, in shame and secrecy." Yet Michael McCarthy's production for Music Theatre Wales presents a virtuoso staging, thanks in large part to Richard Aylwin's single set. Its mirrored surfaces, simultaneously reflective, transparent and distorting, reveal the story, when too often it feels that the music is about the story and its literary heritage.

The pianist Leif Ove Andsnes was born in 1970, a year before the cellist Heinrich Schiff made his professional debut. That makes Schiff just about old enough to be Andsnes' father, but in their duo performance at the Wigmore Hall last Tuesday, his presence was more avuncular than paternal. The pair had changed their programme since its original announcement, and there was a sense of two players feeling their way into the repertoire, and into their relationship.

Yet there was clearly shared pleasure in their music-making, not least in Janacek's Pohadka, in which the composer's rugged, uneven phrases seemed held in place by Schiff's singing cello while Andsnes rippled away with quasi-improvisatory freedom. The works drift into silence was carefully managed, preparing the way for Webern, in whose music silence is only ever a whisper away. His sonata for cello and piano, and Three Little Pieces, last barely five minutes together, yet Schiff and Andsnes found a lexicon of unexaggerated expression in them. Listening to music plays strange tricks on one's experience of time; these tiny shards seemed to contain, if not Blake's "eternity in an hour," then at least a whole evening's worth of pleasure.

The Wigmore has no trouble attracting its audience, but then the Wigmore rarely offers contemporary music. New music concerts can be forbidding events, but the British Music Information Centre's weekly "Cutting Edge" series at the Warehouse, deep in east Waterloo, has a democratic clubbiness that is inviting rather than exclusive. Last Thursday's standing-room-only concert by the Composers' Ensemble presented works by composers associated with Goldsmiths' College, and the refectory informality was duly more pronounced.

The programme included five world premiÿres, mostly written for percussionist Simo Limbrick. Katharine Norman's Helpful Instructions for Circus Performers was an engaging jeu d'esprit, slightly protracted, like its title, but including a wonderful parody of that genre of percussion solo in which the player rushes back and forth making sure that as many instruments as possible sound simultaneously. Limbrick carried it off with deadpan humour. Sadie Harrison's densely argued Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (where do they get these titles?) was rather more serious but no less attractive. A trio of flute, clarinet and viola generated a delicate, almost archaic lyricism over seething textures from piano and percussion (Limbrick again) that certainly suggested the "eroto-" part of Harrison's title.

'La Bohÿme': Coliseum, WC2 (020 7632 8300), to 1 December; 'Jane Eyre': Lowry, Salford (0161 876 2000), tonight, Poole Arts Centre (01202 685222), Saturday, and touring. Anna Picard returns next week

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