Two nights late due to snowfall and a dozen years after he last held the stage, Jonathan Miller’s production of Boheme opened last night at English National Opera. It was about forty watts short of full power.
Miller, as he made clear, shifted the setting to Brassai’s monochrome 1930s Paris of stony-eyed tarts and wall-faced punters. The visuals worked well on the whole and Isabella Bywater’s gray-white colour scheme was seasonally apt.
The flaw was Miller’s decision to position Rodolfo and his chums not as struggling artists but as spoilt Withnail rich kids who are slumming it as bohos for a couple of years before sprucing up for a job in Daddy’s business. That conceit, eliminating existential need, created an artificiality in the love relationships and cost the show heavily in emotional impact. The hankies did not come out until very late in Act Four.
Alfie Boe was a sweet-voiced, unimposing Rodolfo while Melody Moore sang a serviceable Mimi who never occupies centre stage. Roland Wood was a restrained Marcello, his restraint the more obvious for the exuberance of Hanan Alattar’s Musetta. This Lebanese-American soprano, on debut, is definitely one to watch. Miguel Hart-Bedoya conducted, inflexibly for my taste. There was no rubato, no hint of momentary inspiration in any quarter.
I wonder whether television was not partly to blame for the feeling that we were at a general rehearsal rather than a first night. The show was filmed, front stage and back, on two channels of Rupert Murdoch’s Sky TV. Was it in order to manage the close-ups that the lights dimmed on stage at crucial moments, casting Rodolfo and Mimi’s faces in shadow through scenes of love and parting? Is the Coliseum on an energy-saving scheme?
More light, I wanted to shout. Where the hell is Goethe when we really need him?
No matter: Boheme will run and run, at www.eno.org