La Bohème
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In Review > International

La Bohème

English National Opera

In Review ENO Boheme hdl 116
Lois, Borichevsky and Winters in ENO’s new Bohème
© Tristram Kenton

WITH ITS CURRENT POSITION as the third most popular of operas—following only La Traviata and Carmen, according to statistics compiled by Operabase—La Bohème is a prime example of a work all major companies seek to possess in a staging that can be regularly trotted out, season after season, in multiple revivals. It is also a great work of art. 

Presumably for both these reasons, English National Opera presented a new production of Puccini’s tragic romance at the London Coliseum on October 16, just six years after the unveiling of its predecessor, a rather ordinary staging by Jonathan Miller. (Earlier this year, the Royal Opera House finally retired its 1974 production of the piece by John Copley.) The replacement at ENO, however, was not quite new but a coproduction with Dutch National Opera in Amsterdam, where Australian director Benedict Andrews and his design team—Johannes Schütz (sets) and Victoria Behr (costumes)—had staged it in 2014. 

A photograph in the program book showed Andy Warhol’s Factory in 1965, but the excellent English translation, by Amanda Holden, referred to euros and to the French daily newspaper Le Figaro, so it was not clear which city we were in; the setting was modern, urban, and in one or two places distinctly gritty. Rodolfo and Mimì were shooting up together only moments into their first meeting toward the end of Act I, giving their famous and dreamy three-section love scene the quality of a drug-fueled haze.

The other puzzle was the children playing outside the Bohemians’ apartment—clearly a ground floor rather than an attic—at the beginning of Act IV, when the focus should be elsewhere. Schütz’s rotating sets for Act II were distracting and, however you configured them, did not add up to much of a Café Momus. Overall, the result felt serviceable, though it was, at its best, a Bohème for our times. My guess is that it won’t have the staying power of the sort of show the management must have been hoping for when they commissioned it. 

The principals gave good value. Corinne Winters began promisingly as Mimì and, as the evening proceeded, rose to the role’s vocal and dramatic challenges; her clean, appealing lyric soprano is turning into an instrument to watch. Matching her note for note was Welsh soprano Rhian Lois, a Musetta with plenty of personality, flair and some shiny top notes. These were in shorter supply from tenor Zach Borichevsky, who struggled with the high notes allotted to Rodolfo, particularly in the climactic phrase of his Act I aria, but whose physicality made him a good match for the young writer from other points of view; top register sorted out, he could be an excellent exponent of the role.

Duncan Rock created a solidly positive impression, vocally as well as physically, as Marcello, his healthy, medium-weight lyric baritone placing him firmly to the fore of the vocal picture, while Ashley Riches’s Schaunard and Nicholas Masters’s Colline both fitted in perfectly, the latter with a resoundingly warm coat song to his credit. A baritone and buffo specialist with a particular gift for operetta, Simon Butteriss maximized the possibilities of those victims of rampant Bohemianism, Benoit and Alcindoro. 

Chinese conductor Xian Zhang, who conducted an earlier staging of La Bohème (the one before Miller’s) at the Coliseum back in 2007, returned to take charge of the new show. There was plenty of detail in her interpretation, as well as a sound overview of the score, and she drew a lean but effective realization from the ENO musicians.  —George Hall 

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