Call me crazy but I’m partial to a love story with some believability. I find myself feeling frustrated and bored with my experience of Puccini’s La Bohème, which is often considered as one of opera’s most heartbreaking pieces. Am I missing something? From the moment poor poet Rodolfo meets seamstress Mimi, their connection is proposed electric and instant; their attraction denounces convention and within minutes they fall in love. Call me an old cynic but this certainly doesn’t ring true to me. Yes, Cupid’s plump and deadly arrow struck Romeo and Juliet in much the same vein (perhaps with a little bit more intensity) but weren’t they fourteen? If I’m going to be persuaded of this ‘love at first sight’ malarky, I’m going to need a hell of a lot more than I see here.
La Bohème, originally a book titled Scenes de la Vie de Bohème was published in 1851 and is regarded as a minor classic of French literature. 45 years later and it had been turned into not one but two librettos. The two composers, Giacomo Puccini and Ruggero Leoncavallo, had fought over their individual and passionate desires to turn the text into opera and subsequently both made it onto the stage in 1896 and 1897 respectively. It is Puccini’s that the delightful English National Opera has revived here and Natascha Metherell has taken the helm of directing, after assisting Jonathan Miller’s production five years ago. She has done a cracking job of bringing La Bohème to the Coliseum’s stage again – especially aesthetically (which many claimed Puccini did far better than rival, Leoncavallo). Isabella Bywater’s design and Jean Kalman’s lighting sweeps the audience off their feet and takes them to dark but utterly magical 1930s Paris. The energetic buzz of Cafè Momus in Act II convinces entirely and further establishes Rodolfo’s relationship with his friends, Marcello, Colline and Scaunard – working far better than that of he and Mimi in Act I. The chemistry between ex-lovers Marcello and Musetta is captivating and often comical to watch, which further draws negative attention to what is lacking between our protagonists.
The snow-covered Parisian streets of Act III are beautiful and mark the most interesting and promising moments in the entire production. Marcello and Musetta’s relationship and especially the problems they have (prominently jealousy) mirror those of Rodolfo and Mimi as an almost ‘what if’. That is, what if Mimi gave her beau real reason to be insecure in their relationship, what if our quiet, sensitive and doomed heroine was just as confident as her bolshy friend? The couples’ conversations cross over one another in a startlingly effective manner and pave way for the audience to enter a parallel universe in which things could potentially (but not really) have been different.
The issue I have with La Bohème comes from the libretto itself and not from anyone involved in this production. The performers are a delight to both see and hear. Angel Blue’s Mimi is an eensy bit shrill to begin with but like Jennifer Holloway’s Musetta, she quickly comes into her own and does the best she can with what is on offer. Blue’s harmonies with David Butt Philip’s Rodolfo are electrifying especially.
Controversially perhaps, La Bohème seems frighteningly outdated. Mimi’s presumptions about having a man spend money on her is insulting, archaic and in this context, downright dull. She never evolves as a person, rather remaining within the confines of the text. Her and Rodolfo’s relationship doesn’t have an ounce of truth and frankly, its offensive being expected to believe it. This is a stunning production with a great team but the story is flat and half-hearted.
La Bohème is at the London Coliseum until 6 December. For more information and tickets, see the ENO website.