Jonathan Miller’s 2009 production of Puccini’s La Bohème returns to the London Coliseum, revived by director Natascha Metherell to mark the fortieth anniversary of Miller’s directorial debut with the English National Opera.
Having only been to the opera a handful of times prior to this visit, I had hoped that La Bohème would be an accessible choice for newcomers to the genre such as myself; those perhaps who wouldn’t have previously thought of opera as an art-form that was really ‘for them’.
I am pleased to report that this staging of La Bohème bids a warm welcome to opera newbies. Its plot line, which follows the plight of four struggling artists sharing a studio and much else in the Latin Quarter of Paris, is certainly easy for any millennial living in London and trying to carve out a career in the arts. Love flourishes between writer Rodolfo, willing to burn the manuscript of his play to keep his friends warm, and the embroiderer Mimi with her decidedly inauspicious cough.
The universality of its central themes of love and loss are easy enough to relate to; the Artistic Director of the ENO, Daniel Kramer, credits La Bohème’s prevailing popularity with the decision to restage its “near-perfect equilibrium between realism and romanticism, comedy and pathos, at whose heart lies the relationship between the forlorn couple of Rodolfo and Mimi”.
The slightly updated setting of the 1930s also holds much correlation with twenty-first century austerity Britain, matched by the wintry, muted palate of Isabella Bywater’s naturalistic design, containing many nods to the 30s and to Brassaï’s photographs of demi-monde Paris. The artist’s studio bears a striking resemble to the recent recreation of Modigliani’s studio by the Tate. There are a few other nice Depression-era touches, such as the Charlie Chaplin-esque toy seller whose clowning delights both the onstage children as well as the audience. Such touches of familiarity also serve to foster accessibility to the uninitiated.
Perhaps the most accessible aspect of this opera, and one that set it apart from others I have previously attended, was simply that it was sung in English – as are all ENO productions. Additionally, the surtitles that help you along, appear unobtrusively and are timed well enough that they don’t spoil any jokes before they are sung, and therefore don’t detract from the impeccable comic timing of the performers. Indeed, clocking in at just under two and a half hours, the snappy timing of this opera is also ideal for philistines such as myself who may not digest a more sprawling affair quite as easily.
Yet there is also much for the seasoned opera-goer to get their teeth into. Complexity resides beneath the universality of the themes – intersecting and overlaid are the relationships between love, art, poverty, friendship and sacrifice with the production pulling on threads of subtlety to draw out the intricacies therein. I have previously encountered an analogy made by dedicated opera lovers, that to be a fan of opera is to see your favourite film redone every few years by a different director, and to experience a rich variety of interpretations. I am assured by my opera-loving friend that a good part of the joy in opera is in noticing the contrasts and flourishes of the different directors and companies.
This production contained many delights, not least the haunting melodies beautifully performed by Nadine Benjamin’s vivacious Musetta and Natalya Romaniw’s delicate Mimi. Equally enjoyable to watch is the boisterous friendship of the four young artists, sharing what little they have. Though I wouldn’t count myself as hooked just yet, and with the caveat that opera is yet to throw off the mantle of elitism, I would recommend anyone considering dipping their toe into opera to start here. Like a warmly lit cafe on Christmas Eve, it welcomes you in.
La Bohème is playing at the Coliseum until 22 February. For more information and tickets, click here.