ENO Response: La bohème

7th February 2022 in News

ENO Response is a scheme that offers aspiring writers the opportunity to review opera whilst receiving writing advice and feedback from industry mentors.

The ENO revives Jonathan Miller’s staging of Puccini’s best-loved opera La bohème.

Premiering in 2009, this is the fifth revival of the production at the London Coliseum, which sees the tragic tale take place a century after it was originally set. La bohème tells of impoverished Parisian poet Rodolfo’s doomed love for seamstress Mimì. Miller’s naturalistic storytelling along with Puccini’s exquisite score, make this a perfect first-time opera for new audiences.

Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924)
Libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa
Conductor, Ben Glassberg
Director, Jonathan Miller
Revival Director, Crispin Lord

ENO has had no editorial input in the reviews. All views are their own.

La Bohème – Patrick Shorrock

ENO’s latest Bohème comes into the category of enjoyable revival rather than Great Unmissable Operatic Event. Although I didn’t need to get my handkerchief out, it is strongly sung by an attractive cast. David Junghoon Kim, after demonstrating his Italian tenor credentials in ENO’s 2020 production of Luisa Miller, now sings a much more well-known Rodolfo. After a slightly dry start, his voice increasingly acquires bloom and warmth, with complete vocal security and steadiness. What makes him less of a typical tenor is that he also has fine musical instincts. He never belts and understands the value of a pianissimo. He is somewhat subdued dramatically, but then so is Sinéad Campbell-Wallace, his Mimi. She doesn’t have quite the sweetness of tone that the part should ideally have, but is in full musical command of the notes. She lacks the frailty of many Mimis, and makes it sound a bit too easy in a way that a more fluttery or shrill soprano wouldn’t. Despite being handicapped by a shockingly dowdy coat in the heavier more tragic Act 3, she is much more at home here, where there is a bit more to get her teeth into.

Jonathan Miller’s bland production (new in 2009) is set in 1930’s – rather than 1840’s – Paris, moving it closer to the period of composition, as he often did. Apart from that, it is too conventional to contain anything surprising. A production in which the Bohemians are so well-behaved that they wouldn’t even shock a Daily Mail reader hasn’t quite succeeded. You only need to rewatch Moulin Rouge to see what is missing. Isabella Bywater’s Cartier-Bresson-inspired sets are grey, but atmospheric. They also conveniently don’t take long to change, with only one interval after Act 2, which makes for a short evening that avoids breaking the tension. The cramped space at the studio and the Café Momus makes a convincing and refreshing change from the cavernous barns that feature in too many productions of this opera. Alcindoro and Musetta have to share a table with others. Act 2 – with its military band, Café clientele, toy sellers, and children –  requires a lot of crowd control. Crispin Lord’s production was not always as tight as it could have been. Musetta’s dog Lulu was referred to in the text but invisible, and the eye was not always naturally drawn to the climax of the action. The curtain tended to come down slightly too soon, leading to applause before the music had finished.

The rest of the cast is impressive. It is not difficult for Musetta to steal the show in Act 2, but Louise Alder does so with aplomb and sounds glorious. William Thomas (Colline) and Charles Rice (Marcello) have splendid voices which they used to great effect, even if their characterisations were rather more ordinary. Ben Glassberg’s conducting was better at flow rather than energy, but, perhaps like the production as a whole, didn’t quite deliver the impact that this opera really should.

La Bohème – Grace Richardson

There’s an absurdity to La Bohème: the most swoon-worthy musical phrases juxtaposed against a trite storyline and characters that mostly aren’t likeable. However, this 2009 revival production is comfortable in its awkward skin: it manages to navigate the ridiculous plot points, and subtle characterisation somewhat minimises the irksome qualities of the characters.

I was pleasantly surprised by the acting among the often overacted Bohemians. Charles Rice’s Marcello was a particular stand-out: his performance felt easy and actually comical, he managed to be a little more likeable than the character ought to be. No Marcello is complete without his Musetta, and Louise Alder’s performance was commanding and playful, just as it should be. Comparatively, David Junghoon-Kim’s performance of Rodolfo fell a little flat for me, despite the beautiful tone of his voice and Sinead Campbell-Wallace’s Mimi shone brightest in those tender pianissimo passages that form her character’s last breaths. William Thomas (Colline) is fast becoming a favourite of mine, his velvety voice is clear as a bell and captivates no matter what is happening around him. I eagerly await his next engagement – can you tell I’m developing a crush?

For once I appreciated the embracing of the ENO’s anglicisation – Simon Butteriss’s comedic landlord Benoit had a more than a touch of ‘Del Boy’ to him. After a quick costume change he returns as Musetta’s latest fling Alcindoro, an upper class English gent, who desperately tries to hush his lover, only to end up causing a bigger scene.

Puccini’s musical swells did at points seem to take everyone (including the cast) a bit by surprise, like waves crashing on a British beach sweeping pleasure seekers momentarily under the brine before coming up for air.

In my opinion it’s a subtly clever staging and set. The fairly ordinary period set had a few interesting embellishments, my favourite were the windows at the back of the bohemians apartment in the first act that are lowered to become the fenestrated ceiling of the rowdy Cafe Momus round back in the second act, exaggerating the chaos onstage and allowing the viewer’s eye to wander without straying too far from the action. In the third act I could have done without the breadstick sword fight but the argument between Marcello and Musetta back in their apartment that we can only glimpse through the window managed to feel private (even though it was viewed by the full auditorium).

This is clearly a well liked production that leans all the way into the audience’s expectations, from the period costumes and set to the translation with it’s at times corny rhyming couplets. It managed to go big on the things I like about La Bohème and didn’t dwell over the bits I find annoying.

La bohème – Daniel Shailer

The sun is rising on Act IV of La bohème at the Colliseum. A set which has rotated through Parisian cafes and bohemian flats is now being silently, slowly shunted back to where it began by a troupe of stage-hands. ‘That looks difficult’ someone whispers. They’re not wrong. In a way, much of this production (the fifth English National Opera revival of Jonathan Miller’s original) looks more difficult than it needs too.

Miller, with the help of Isabella Bywater’s set design, sets out his stall quickly. It’s a markedly physical stage – all cigarettes and wine, sinks and pokey rafters – immediately populated with the roughhouse physicality of 20-something flatmates. It’s recognisable and undeniably fun. Simon Butteriss’ Benoît has barely burst through the door, with all the energy of a randy Basil Brush, when the ragged-trousered artists literally throw their landlord back down the stairs. The orchestra matches them for bombast: fat, jammy lower brass announce Benoît and there are early flashes of sparklingly sardonic warmth when Schaunard (Benson Wilson) remembers poisoning the parrot he was supposed to pet-sit.

In the excitement, Ben Glassberg occasionally loses the connection between singers and orchestra. Wilson strays perilously far from the beat; Charles Rice and David Junghoon Kim (Marcello and Rodolfo respectively) find themselves overpowered. You’d be wrong to wish for any less orchestral firepower, only that Glassberg might have found more interpretative cohesion – to have coordinated each wave of brass to carry his singers, not overcome them.

It doesn’t help that the late Amanda Holden’s libretto jettisons the cast into a sea of fiddly English consonants. This is only such a shame because Holden plays up Puccini’s almost manic emotional range deftly. When audible, we’re ricocheted between the depths of passionate despair and delightfully shoe-horned one-liners worthy of Gilbert and Sullivan (‘skinny women are sent to spite us/ with migraines and arthrit-us’). At least, also, diction is lost in the name of riveting vocal performances. Louis Alder combines coloratura flightiness with Bizet-ready sex-appeal in Musetta and William Thomas takes to any part with delightful resonance (in this case, Colline). Sinéad Campbell-Wallace stars as Mimì and, along with Alder, demonstrates enough artfully deployed dynamic control that a translation is barely required.

Ultimately, it is exactly this assured characterisation which powers Crispin Lord’s revival roughshod over any niggles. Picking up on balance or diction feels a little like faulting some flat jokes in Don’t Look Up: it’s not untrue, but it’s probably missing the point. Above all else – and most importantly – the story-telling is direct and moving. The characters are drawn with clear brush strokes: from a Charlie Chaplin styled Parpignol (played by Adam Sullivan) all the way up to Campbell-Wallace’s naturalistic, gaunt Mimì. The rotating set does prove too cumbersome, but it also instantly evokes the snowy street corners and corridors of Paris. The orchestra may outsell the singers fleetingly, but they deliver Puccini’s final, bombastically painful hammer blow so movingly that, ultimately, all is forgotten.

La Bohème – Grace Creaton-Barber

La Bohème is really an opera of two halves: one light, the other darker. The comedic libretto (translated by Amanda Holden) introduces a freshness that grants La Bohème the unique opportunity to address tragedy through witticism, resulting in the perfect mixture of raucous merriment and gritty realism. And, despite being the ENO’s fifth revival of Jonathan Miller’s adaptation, that realism is as effervescent as it ever has been.

Puccini’s La Bohème follows the lives of a lively group of Bohemians and their partners amongst the challenges of Parisian life in the 1930s. The tragic love begins when Mimì (sung by Sinéad Campbell-Wallace), in seeking a light for her candle, calls at Rodolfo’s (sung by David Junghoon Kim) garret and promptly falls in love. This iconic moment marks the start of a passionate relationship that plays out amongst the hardships of poverty and the devoted companionship of good friends.

Male voices dominate the vocal score yet both Campbell-Wallace and Louise Alder (singing Musetta) shine through with quiet command. Campbell-Wallace’s soprano is pure and delicate, perfectly offsetting the comic banter of the four male Bohemians. Alder’s fusion of vocal precision with her highly self-confident characterisation is stand-out. Of the four men, it is Marcello (sung by Charles Rice) that performs with most clarity and personality, becoming the ring leader for mischief and merriment. All of the Bohemians, as well as Benoît the landlord (a role originated by and played on the night by Simon Butteriss), have impeccable comic timing and succeed in extracting ripples of laughter from the audience.

Whilst the scenery is minimal, it is precise and deliberate. The rotating buildings allow the cast to smoothly transition between the garret and the streets of Paris. Each scene is a patchwork of real life, with every prop being the genuine article. The clatters of plates and ringing of glasses only adds to the busy reality, holding up a mirror to life as it was then. Busyness is, in fact, a constant feature. Even during the heart-breaking duet where Rodolfo and Mimì agree to part, there is an argument roaring between Marcello and Musetta in the upstairs apartment. Fortunately, this has the effect of credibility rather than distraction.

It is a welcome sight for an opera to give equal prevalence to its characterisations, not just the singing. La Bohème is, in my opinion, a timeless wonder and I cannot help but hope its audiences will be graced by a sixth revival shortly.

La Bohème – Alexander Cohen

Brassaï’s Paris, documented in his photographs taken throughout the 1930s, is bleary and bleak. A perennial darkness lurks beneath dimly lit cobbles, bustling cafes, and wafting cigarette smoke. These images form the inspiration for Jonathan Miller’s 2009 production of La Bohème, revived by Crispin Lord. The silent ruination at the heart of Brassaï’s photographs is masterfully translated onto the stage, but the production is too literally reminiscent of the photographs in that it is always stuck in two dimensions, never going beyond the images to something deeper.

David Junghoon Kim’s confident and compassionate Rodolfo is bolstered by his band of bohemian artists. Their playful energy conjures a continental Withnail & I, with Charles Rice’s misanthropic Marcello being particularly engaging with his boisterous swagger and booming baritone. Together they scurry in and out of their Parisian garret, rendered with such delightful detail by designer Isabella Bywater that you can almost smell the grime that lines the walls. There is something mischievous about the multi-faceted set that twist and unravels to reveal new areas for the performers to explore. Act II was a particular highlight, marrying the intricate and atmospheric set design, gorgeous period costumes, and a throbbing chorus to create the vibrant Café Momus.

Yet the third and fourth act did not live up to the emotional vivacity promised by the first two. The one relationship that underpins the entire opera, Kim’s Rodolfo and Sinead Campbell Wallace’s melancholic Mimi, could never materialise. The doomed lovers’ arias sometimes strayed into saccharine territory, too often embellishing their vocals resulting in a discordant emotional balance rather than grounded verismo. This was not helped by the orchestra who were frequently battling Kim and Campbell Wallace rather than letting their melodies bloom. The two were often drowned out, overpowered by the score rather than working alongside it. Mimi’s death, one of the most famous in opera, missed the mark, not becoming the heart-rending gut punch it could have been.

Although it feels heretical to suggest, I cannot help but wonder whether this production was hampered by the ENO’s dedication to performing translated works. Before the days of digital surtitles, translation was the most accessible way to bring continental opera to the English-speaking world. But now that translated Libretto beaming across a screen line by line is common place in opera houses across the country, is there still a need to perform in translation? La Bohème brought this to my attention for the sole reason that Italian, the language the opera was originally written in, possess that rhythmic je ne sais quoi that I would imagine amplifies the opera’s romantic sentiment. This flare would be lost in translation when performing in the more unwieldy English language. Just a thought.

La Bohème – Alexander Grant-Said

Boy meets girl, love at first sight, girl gives telltale delicate cough. The tragic outcome is hardly surprising but that’s no bad thing with Puccini, one of the great weep-inducers of the craft.

Jonathan Miller’s La Bohème doesn’t try to overcook the source material — Paris circa 1840’s becomes Paris circa 1930’s — though his production dials up the cosy spectacle. Act II is complete with frolicking children and a rosy-cheeked toy vendor on a bicycle. The result has been five revivals since 2009, with this one finding solid direction under Crispin Lord. But amid the well-oiled theatrics and some unfortunate orchestral imbalance, the talented cast struggled to make those memorable arias their own and I found myself wishing for a more adventurous approach to compensate.

Isabella Bywater’s sets remain handsome and atmospheric, a cross-section of caves du vin, lamplit back alleys and the Café Momus in interwar greys. The purgatorial gloom does however make it hard for the leads to stand out in their key moments.

Miller’s Bohemians are in constant frat-boy tussles — you really can feel every poke and backslap in Act I, which lends a social insight to Puccini’s drama. That Mimi’s losing battle with consumption is sandwiched between the boys-with-baguettes duels of her oblivious lover and his mates only exaggerates the bleakness of her situation. And at other times this naturalistic acting comes at the cost of vocal presence.

For “Your tiny hand is frozen,” Mimi and Rodolpho intimately address each other huddled next to a stove and the duet doesn’t soar the way it should with soprano Sinead Campbell-Wallace and David Junghoon Kim behind it. Kim in particular has given goosebump performances at the ENO recently in Luisa Miller and an open-air Tosca but here the tenor lacks consistency, his lovelorn Rodolpho finding footing only at the climax of lines. Once there, however, he demonstrates a talent worth following into the future.

If only the singers were able to plant their feet and belt in an old-fashioned verismo style, it might have safeguarded them against a rich but often overpowering orchestra, conducted by ENO first-timer Ben Glassberg. The late Amanda Holden’s lively translation of the libretto doesn’t help. Rhyming couplets are charming but the extra syllables get tangled in the mouth and can’t quite reconcile with Puccini’s tempo.

Special mentions go to baritone William Thomas, whose Colline manages to punch past the pit with a
muscular, crisp phrasing despite brief stage time. And Musetta played by Louise Alder is one of the more arresting stage presences. The soprano’s chemistry with partner Marcello, adeptly played by a rakish Charles Rice, sparks in a way that the main couple’s romance never quite manages.

There’s still plenty to admire here but this traditional revival’s young blooded cast are the key to avoiding a slip into blandness and like Mimi’s frozen hands, they could use more help to warm up.

La Bohème – Maya Qassim

La Bohème is set in the Latin quarter of Pairs and tells the story of four poor bohemian artists. La Bohème is a ‘Verismo’, an operatic genre which focuses on characters navigating the universal struggles of reality. As promised with Puccini (also well known as the composer of O Mio Babbino Caro), the libretto is filled with intensity and vibrance. The passion on stage was incredibly moving, as the audience witnesses the romance between the young lovers on the streets of Paris.

Set designer Isabella Bywater captured the atmosphere of Paris at night, on a turning set, inspired by photographer Brassaï and Murger’s autobiographical portraits of De la vie de Bohème (The Bohemian life). Lighting designer Jean Kalman painted a picture of bohemian Paris on set, doing justice to Puccini, who deemed stagecraft almost as important as the score. The set remained visually stunning throughout the performance. The subtle use of a glowing yellow light, which like a painting, was reduced and accented to help drive the narrative’s timeframe and represent dawn/dusk. In Act II, Café Momu, had echoes of Van Gogh’s Café Terrace at night which seemed to glow with the orchestra, further evoking a Bohemian atmosphere you could almost jump into. In Act IV, the top light trickled into the apartment through glass, again a very striking image which helped to set the tone of the narrative.

The chemistry between the cast on set was palpable and brought the relationships to life. The ‘bromance’ portrayed by Rodolfo – a poet (David Junghoon Kim – Tenor), Marcello – a painter (Charles Rice – Baritone), Schaunard – a musician (Benson Wilson – Baritone) and Colline – a philosopher (William Thomas – Bass), felt organic. There were high comic moments in the scenes depicting the unconditional love of Mimí (Sinéad Campbell-Wallace) and Rudolfo (David Junghoon Kim) play against the turbulent relationship of Marcello (Charles Rice – Baritone) and Rosetta (Louise Alder) who has a particular strong stage presence and succeeded in seducing the characters and the audience.

Violinist Clair Sterlin almost breathed and sighed with Mimí’s melodies in Act IV, adding to the cathartic nature of the plot. Conductor Ben Glassberg exploited the full dexterity of the Orchestra, with delicate fragile sounds later juxtaposed with a vibrant thicker texture.

4/5 stars

La Bohème – Tacita Quinn

Falling in love of an afternoon – never a particularly good idea, but certainly a phenomenon that has increased over the pandemic. The English National Opera’s decision to revive Jonathan Miller’s 2009 take on La Bohème needs little explanation in these post-COVID times. Love moves fast these days, often to everyone’s detriment.

Forgive the mournful tone, but there is no other way to take this production, its relation to modern times makes it more than a bit of a downer – we’re a long way away from Jonathan Larson’s bo-bo-bo-bo-bo-bohemia. Between the scruffy beards and communist paraphernalia, all the designer would have needed to add to the artist’s studio to convince me that it was set in 2022 would be some Wes Anderson posters and an aged MacBook Pro. With all its contemporary weight, Mimi and Rodolfo’s tragic relationship is all the more poignant. Sung respectively by Sinéad Campbell-Wallace and David Junghoon Kim, the beautiful combination of their longing voices, particularly in the final act, was enough to break a heartstring.

As is often with La Bohème, Musetta, sung by Louise Alder, stole the show. Vivacious and dissenting, Alder’s sex-positive shtick works well against the boyish Marcello, portrayed by Charles Rice. The chemistry of this pair is thrilling and their meeting in Café Momus provides the lightness in this production. The feeling of Café Momus, created by designer Isabella Bywater, with its linen tablecloths and ceiling mirrors, felt spot on, sophisticatedly French but with raucous behaviour firmly in mind.

Conductor Ben Glassberg’s talent has been widely recognised recently, and rightly so, bringing out the liveliness in Puccini’s score, he handled the chorus particularly well. The throngs of excited school children amidst busy Parisians, wove deftly in and around each other at the beginning of Act Two. At times, however, arias felt overwhelmed by the orchestra, but the translated libretto did not help here. I couldn’t help my eyes straying to the surtitles, a shame, since the other translations at the ENO so far this season have been particularly successful.

Having attended the modern take on La Bohème at The London Coliseum in 2015, I can say with certainty that Jonathan Miller’s adaptation continues to feel up-to-date, and more relatable, even in its 1930s setting. The immature behaviour of the four artists feels criticised throughout, and, rather than chastising stereotyped ‘bohemiennes’, the fateful ending fits the misdeeds of male adolescence. Perhaps, for Mimi, the overall lesson is to never trust someone who steals your keys with the excuse of romance.

Filled with too many comparisons to contemporary life to count, this was a hard-hitting, well sung production, if a little on the nose at times. If you feel the need to release your pandemic related emotions, be they frustration or sadness, La Bohème at the ENO will certainly help loosen your tear ducts.

A Review of La Bohème by Maxine Morse

Scrounging flat sharers! Late with rent! No money for fuel or food! Work shy! This society is going to the dogs.

Variations of the La Bohème theme are on the inside pages of every popular, contemporary newspaper. Perhaps it explains the enduring appeal of this 1896 Puccini opera. It speaks to the human condition. No severed heads on gilded platters here!

Jonathan Miller’s production is a cross between the grey scenes of Lowry’s industrial northern poverty and Renoir’s detailed cameos of Parisienne life.  Berets off to Crispin Lord, the revival director for his inclusive casting…Rodolfo (David Junghoon Kim) is a sensitive lover not a Brad Pitt lookalike, Mimi (Sinèad Campbell-Wallace) exudes seamstress-like common sense and is not the poverty-stricken waif so often depicted and Musetta is more sex bomb than harlot. This is opera realism at its best. As Roldofo and Mimi strolled arm in arm outside the café in Act III, I felt transported to a pavement outside a Blackpool chippy.

Isabella Bywater’s staging is magnificent. A gargantuan, murky edifice rotates fairground style from the freezing, spartan, Crittall windowed garret to a sumptuous, joyful, bustling Christmas Eve street scene reminiscent of the lid of a tin of Quality Street…children chase the toy seller (Adam Sullivan) and a brass band booms. In the crowded Café Momus, amidst a confusion of toasts, camaraderie and flirtation, our impoverished bohèmians manage to palm Alcindoro (Simon Butteriss) Musetta’s elderly suitor off with their bill.

David Junghoon Kim’s vocal performance hits the highs but his lower range is sometimes drowned out by an over enthusiastic orchestra. Sinèad Campbell-Wallace singing is light, clear and crisp like the winter air. Charles Rice (Marcello), William Thomas (Colline) and Benson Wilson (Schaunard) bring some laddish musical heft to the attic scenes. Louise Alder’s performance of Musetta was fruity and rich, a joy to listen to.

Simon Butteriss, as Benoît the landlord and Alcindoro the hapless, geriatric suitor, lends a light hearted Fawlty Towers element to the production with his masterly comic timing.

The only jarring note is the dance routine in the attic in Act IV. Surely, we need a spontaneous combustion of raucous abandonment rather than a careful choreographed audience facing jig. Why else would anyone dance in their flat?

I had the pleasure of sitting behind the conductor, Ben Glassberg. He was a joy watch. He felt the music with every hand movement and was visibly transported by it.

This is one of the few performances of La Bohème where the portrayal is authentic and plausible. All that is required now is for us to drown our sorrows in absinthe and pray for Spring.

ENO La bohéme – Heart-cracked but not heartbroken – Carol J Jones
There are now several generations whose first encounter of La bohéme is not from an opera house but musicals like RENT or Moulin Rouge!, coincidentally playing at the Piccadilly Theatre. Starving artists hopelessly in love while dangerously high on the excesses of life have come to define this generation’s view of Bohemianism. It’s this new set of expectations that English National Opera are contending with in their fifth revival of Jonathan Miller’s iconic 2009 production of La bohéme. 

Revival director Crispin Lord is given the task of bringing to life Miller’s 1930’s Parisian La bohéme. Isabella Bywater’s remarkably tidy sets do most of the heavy work, transporting us to the bustling streets of Paris and empty apartments that make up the Bohemian life. Amanda Holden’s translation is one of the best yet: delightfully witty but never cumbersome or oversimplified. Lord delivers when it comes to the comedy, especially the opening of Act IV, but when it comes to the drama, one wonders what happened.

David Junghoon Kim and Sinéad Campbell-Wallace as vocally glorious the doomed Rodolfo and Mimi. Their top notes could spin and dazzle for days, made more impressive by Kim battling a persistent cough. Yet their chemistry is either all-consuming or nothing at all. We never see the peaks and troughs that make up their blossoming romance or Rodolfo’s growing jealously. Charles Rice and Louise Alder alternatively are perfectly matched as the tempestuous Marcello and Musetta, with Alder devouring every moment of Musettas Waltz. ENO Harewood Artist William Thomas sonorous voice is unforgettable, while Simon Butteriss almost steals the show as the doddery Benoît and pompous Alcindoro. The ENO Chorus were in excellent form, filling the Coliseum with a vibrant energy.

Ben Glassberg takes the conducting reins in his ENO debut. Glassberg makes swift work of the score, attacking the score with all his might to the point where you feel uncomfortably unsteady at times. The ENO orchestra similarly rips through the score with gusto. Special mention must go to the woodwind section who lightly skip and trip through the more delicate moments in Act III.

I was once told that having seen La bohéme, I should leave heartbroken. It may be cracked but it’s not broken. La bohéme is technically exceptional: first-rate singing, hilarious comedy and an exquisite translation. But if you don’t believe in the central love story then what is La bohéme about?