ENO always has a diverse programme. This season they are offering up some real classics that I’m sure will be popular with the public: Handel’s Radamisto, Mozart’s Don Giovanni and of course Puccini’s La Boheme. Unlike some operas La Boheme is not difficult to follow, and the narrative moves slowly through the powerful melodies, avoiding the unbelievable twists and turns of some opera plots. Above all it is a great love story, and more prosaically a study of some young bohemians and the mischief they get up to.
I fell in love with Puccini when I first performed Tosca with Opera Holland Park, ever since I can’t help but be deeply affected by the overpoweringly passionate music. My academic experience of Puccini can sometimes lead me to be overcritical of productions I see. This time round ENO push all the right buttons for me, it is a truly enchanting production on all counts.
This is the first revival of Jonathan Miller’s production, following its initial successful run. Thanks to designer Isabella Bywater this adaptation adds something special to Puccini’s classic. The atmosphere is transporting, Miller decided to set the opera in 1930s Paris, the era after the depression, and Bywater’s vision matches the directors sentiment entirely. The evolving set made me feel so close to the great French city, and the magical mist and falling snow in the second half made me shiver. My favourite part of the set has to be the intricately decorated Cafe Momus that radiates from the centre of the stage, and is complete to the tiniest detail. I later found out the set and costumes are based on images of Paris from about 1932 by the famous Hungarian photographer, sculptor and filmmaker Brassaï.
The singers are all brilliant, but tenor Gwyn Hughes Jones is particularly spectacular as Rodolfo. (The part is split between Gwyn Hughes Jones and Alfie Boe). He commands the stage, and engulfs the tiny Mimi (Elisabeth Llewellyn) with an endearing natural charm. His voice is sensitive and yet grand and the massive ENO theatre buzzed with his presence. This is Llewellyn’s ENO debut, and I thought she did jolly well, she sings with a natural sincerity that suits the character well, her obvious excitement was very noticeable in her quite touching bow at the end of the curtain call. The rest of the cast are good too, and it is difficult to find any fault. I loved the raucous children running across the stage, all peering in to the Cafe while the bohemians are inside singing. I do prefer my La Boheme in Italian, but thought that Amanda Holden’s translation was rather comically and enjoyable.
Puccini’s music is so brilliant it doesn’t take much to make one of his operas into a good production, but this has something a little bit extra. ENO got it just right.
La Boheme continues at the ENO until 27 November 2010, book tickets here.