Ravishing music, good acting, nasty piece of work

La Bohème, Coliseum, London
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The Independent Culture

Girl meets boy. Girl dies. It could be any one of a hundred different operas but in this case it's Puccini's concise study of jealousy, pig-headedness and poverty, La Bohème. Did you think La Bohème was about the romantic ideal? Not in Steven Pimlott's 1993 production, one of the earliest to focus on the less enchanting aspects of this vignette and now in its fifth revival.

In many ways stripping La Bohème of sentimentality is a laudable thing to do. Think of Zola's grim critique of greed and class divisions in Nana, La Terre and Thérèse Raquin. If this opera has anything to say about love, it is that love in the material world of fin de siècle Paris involves a measure of disillusionment. There are no heroes here. We see Rodolfo's blunt snobbery as he introduces Mimi to his friends as an artist (she's a seamstress), we see Musetta's pragmatism as she trades sexual favours for a pair of high heels, we see blackmail, clipping, scavenging and self-deception. And all of this is conveyed through the most ravishing, devastating, translucent music, which is what makes La Bohème a really nasty piece of work.

But the key to a successful (ie tearjerking) Bohème is in balancing knowledge of the protagonists' baser instincts with a desire to see them and their circumstances improve. In short, you have to care – and this is where this now jaded and overly ironic production fails. In part this is a result of the transposition to post-war Paris (where some details are annoyingly anachronistic and the simple-heartedness of Linda Richardson's Mimi seems more like simple-headedness), in part it is down to Michael Walling's unremittingly bleak re-staging (the Rodolfo he pulls from a nervous Rhys Meirion is a petulant child play-acting at love), and in part it comes from casting two very young leads who can't quite carry Puccini's soaring, ecstatic phrases. These problems are intensified by a balance that consistently favours the orchestra.

It wouldn't matter so much were the opera sung in Italian with surtitles – the playing is superb – but, as ever at the Coliseum, it is sung in English, so when you lose the words you lose the narrative, and – with the exception of Mimi and Rodolfo's arias – La Bohème is a very wordy opera. Jeremy Sams's translation didn't stand a chance. I was mildly surprised to hear Colline's beard described as "aerobic" (in retrospect I think it was probably "heroic"), and mildly annoyed by the more audible smart-assery (Hitchcock's 1960 film Psycho in the game of charades?), but how can you inject pathos into the word "muff"? Exactly. If this isn't proof that the original language better serves suspension of disbelief, I don't know what is.

On the upside, though Richardson and Meirion are a few years off singing their roles with ease, they act very well. There's a sense of frustration in this doomed relationship, which contrasts beautifully with the confident physicality of Alycia Fashae (Musetta) and David Kempster (Marcello). Fashae is a sympathetic Musetta, warm, ribald and characterful enough to overcome her spectacularly unflattering Jessica Rabbit costume. Kempster – a striking and believable Marcello – leads the trio of best supporting bohos effortlessly, well matched by an excellent Colline (Iain Paterson) and Leslie John Flanagan's stylish flâneur Schaunard. Unsurprisingly, their ensembles are the high point – and that's the first time I've been able to say that about any Bohème.

'La Bohème': English National Opera, London WC2 (020 7632 8300) to 7 November

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