The Bohÿme no one knows - and now we know why

La Boheme | Coliseum, London
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The Independent Culture

Until last week, nobody thought to ask "which La Bohÿme?" There was Puccini and there was Puccini. The "other one" (they were premiered a year apart - 1896/7, Puccini first) was occasionally discussed but never performed. Oblivion. So now that English National Opera has done the right thing by Ruggiero Leoncavallo, should agents start panicking that their star sopranos and tenors are turning up for the right opera? Will they soon be waking nightly in cold sweats having seen their much-prized Mimi playing second fiddle to Leoncavallo's Musetta, or their hot tenor transformed into a cool baritone?

Until last week, nobody thought to ask "which La Bohÿme?" There was Puccini and there was Puccini. The "other one" (they were premiered a year apart - 1896/7, Puccini first) was occasionally discussed but never performed. Oblivion. So now that English National Opera has done the right thing by Ruggiero Leoncavallo, should agents start panicking that their star sopranos and tenors are turning up for the right opera? Will they soon be waking nightly in cold sweats having seen their much-prized Mimi playing second fiddle to Leoncavallo's Musetta, or their hot tenor transformed into a cool baritone?

I doubt it. But just to experience this very different Bohÿme in the theatre tells you a whole lot about the two operas' respective composers as musical dramatists. See it now if you're going to. I don't think it's here to stay.

But then that's what they initially said about the Puccini. Are we at least better placed to appreciate the Leoncavallo now? Put it this way, Leoncavallo attempts a tougher, grittier approach to Henri Murger's novel. Attempts. The men are hopeless idealists, the women go from one rich benefactor to another. In between, they refresh their souls with love and art. It's called survival.

So, no sweet candlelit meetings on the garret stairs. No rosy duets. Mimi already knows Rudolfo. And Musetta isn't the only good-time-girl in town. In marked contrast to the Puccini, she and Marcello are the romantic focus of the opera. But she doesn't give up "the good life" for Marcello; it gives her up. She is dumped by her banker. Whereupon Mimi runs off with a viscount. Only coming back to die in the arms of the one she loves.

We witness the reversal of their fortunes. When one is up, the other is down, but not quite out. Not until the final cough, that is. The first two acts are bright and ebullient; the second two are steely grim. In the hands of a great dramatist, the starkness of the contrast might have payed off. But the piece's structure is totally lopsided, the first half being inconsequential (at great length), the second hopelessly compromised by a poor libretto and consequently (one presumes) an unavoidably clunky translation (Steven Dykes).

The best thing about Leoncavallo's tuneful score is the easy way it alludes to Parisian music hall and operetta. Musetta isn't the only one with a waltz song. Acts I and II are one interminable waltz song. Schaunard, the composer, becomes a kind of chorus- master of ceremonies.

Lanky Paul Whelan, enjoying a bigger role than Puccini gives him, even gets to outstrip - literally - Musetta. When the rest of ENO's feisty young cast weren't pushing their luck - and their vocal resources - they were most engaging. Sandra Ford (Mimi) and Leigh Melrose (Rodolfo) can both afford to rein things in a bit; Christine Rice (Musetta) makes a super noise and is really finding herself as a company principal.

And Rhys Meirion (Marcello) - a really natural lyric tenor with a gloriously uninhibited top - has the potential to be really big.

Tim Albery, the director, seems at a loss to know what to do with the piece. His "statement", at the beginning of each act, is to present a uniformly grey, faceless workforce, heads down at their desks. The daily grind to the accompaniment of a ticking clock. Go figure the contrast. The production looks like a revival of Rent (now there's a thought), with over-designed costumes (Jon Morrell) from some distant Chelsea Arts Ball.

Or am I just getting bored with all the scaffolding and plastic sheeting?

Until 1 December, box office: 020-7632 8300

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