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La bohème

by on 3 February 2022

Bantz and boisterousness

La bohème

by Giacomo Puccini, libretto translated by Amanda Holden

ENO with the Cincinnati Opera, at the Coliseum, until 27th February

Review by Matthew Grierson

There’s no doubt that ENO’s revival of La bohème, directed by Crispin Lord, is a joy. It’s easy to share the boisterous bonhomie of Rodolfo (David Junghoon Kim) and his roustabout chums as they lark through interwar Paris, the setting having been transplanted a generation or two by Dr Miller. Whether conniving against their landlord, avoiding a ruinous bill or dancing in their garret, they display a recognisably fun and engaging laddishness.

But it’s then harder to join them in the despair of their affairs. So much of their humour is already a put-on that one can’t ever be sure that they are not knowingly acting in the way lovers are supposed to.

Item: wrestling with a deadline for a review – don’t worry, Mr Aspen, I’m on it – Rodolfo is visited by neighbour Mimi (Sinéad Campbell-Wallace) who wants a light for her candle. No sooner have they made eye contact than they are mooning at one another in the moonlight.

Allowing that the lunar glow is insufficient to find the key she drops, though, why do they not switch on the overhead lamps to shed some light? I guess energy prices are always a concern … And as soon as their shadowed hands touch, they are in love.

The emotional registers turn as swiftly and smoothly as Isabella Bywater’s impressive recreation of the Parisian demi-monde. The production’s admirable attention to detail is marked not only in the set design, and in Jean Kalman’s appropriately seasonal lighting, but in the activity and bustle of the metropolitan crowds. These are not drilled troupes but characterful individuals, from the waiters anxiously juggling crockery to the suitors of the blowsy Musetta (Louise Alder) who draw the temperamental Marcello (Charles Rice) into fisticuffs. The background activity gives the production an affable comic realism that more than counterpoints the tragic narrative.

The playfulness of the bohemians comes to bear even in the love duets. In his exchanges with Mimi, Rodolfo is insistent on his identity as a poet, but it’s her own reflections that have a lyric cast to them, especially what she has to say about the poet’s calling. In the late Amanda Holden’s sparkling, witty translation of Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa’s libretto, everyone can lay a claim to poetry; so perhaps this is just another of Rodolfo’s pretences.

When the mood turns after the interval, it is not only the promise of early love that is lost but also some of the emotional intensity. The arias of Acts III and IV are on the whole well performed but at, if you will, a social distance. Perhaps after so much recent real-world deprivation and bereavement, the repercussions of poverty and Mimi’s illness have to be kept at one remove.

But as I said, it’s still joy that pervades this La bohème. The liveliness of the cast, Alder and Rice especially, enthuses the audience, and makes clear that milord Lord is quite taken by the self-mythologising of the artistic set. One leaves the Coliseum buzzing in the mild February air.

Matthew Grierson
February 2022

Photography © Genevieve Girling

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