A painter, a poet, a scholar, a musician, a seamstress and a singer walk into a Parisian cafe … and start singing in English. Welcome to La Boheme, where the title remains French but the words have been translated from the Italian into English. The Bohemian life at English National Opera in fact but even here, in this very-easy-on-the-eye production from polymath Jonathan Miller, it still ends with the Marcello’s howl of despair over the body of the dead Mimi.
Things move slowly in the world of opera so only now, some 120 years on from the era, are there now open, mainstream, discussions about quite how many classics of the repertoire feature dead young women. We’ll wait to see what changes in future productions in terms of emphasis or drawing new ideas out of the text and music. For now, this 2009 example is a splendid example of a fully traditional interpretation: the garret is a garret, the cafe a cafe, it snows on the streets of a recognisable Paris, and the characters move and act as the directions and music have always told them to. Which makes it, unfairly, sound like a warhorse. Being Miller, it looks stunning – the set movers received a round of applause at one point – and gives space the characters to come to life. If it lacks the intimacy that Boheme always seems to me to demand, I’ll put that down to the fact that intimacy is hard within the gargantuan dimensions of the London Coliseum.
It’s a fact that those same dimensions can often cause voices to be lost. Sitting in the Upper Circle (get me), that was the case a bit this evening. Nothing too catastrophic but if I were the kind of demanding person who takes this seriously, I’d be cross. The highlights were all sung magnificently though. Welsh soprano, Natalya Romaniw as Mimi, in particular, had the most wonderful tone and range throughout. Nicholas Lester also deserved the applause for his Marcello, and Nadine Benjamin was a damn fine Musetta. All of this under the baton of Valentina Paleggi who was making her debut conducting the ENO and who, to this ear, did a more than decent job.
The ENO is, rightly, much maligned these days. Its slimmed down schedule and questionable artistic and commercial choices make it an easy and deserving target. But on nights like this you want to forget all that. Boheme a great opera and productions that do it justice are a special pleasure. This was one such. Hopefully, we’ll be hearing more about quality like this (played to a pretty full house) and less of the managerial nonsense in the future.