Is there an opera more Romantic than La Bohéme? Not just a tragic, doomed love story, the whole notion of heroic bohemian artists working outside of mainstream tastes in relative poverty is built on the foundations of Romanticism.
In Jonathan Miller’s realistically portrayed production of Puccini’s opera (now in its third revival), it’s the latter that’s emphasised. Isabella Bywater’s multi-tiered, rotating set design has a suitably cold palette, transporting us from shabby interiors to atmospheric snow covered cobbled streets. It’s brought to life by the scurrying, ever-busy chorus – the bustling Café Momus scene of Act II is a particular highlight. This isn’t a radical production; the setting has been updated to 1930s era Paris, but the clear and traditional aesthetic ensures the narrative is lucid and the music is the key focus. That’s a welcome trait – Bohéme is not to be messed with.
That balance can’t be said of conductor Gianluca Marciano. The English translation of the libretto from Amanda Holden (no not that one) is full of comedy as well as pathos, even if the rhyming is sometimes stilted. It’s a shame, though, that the words are so frequently overpowered by the sometimes indulgent orchestra. Balance and diction are both issues here.
If the setting is evocative, the acting doesn’t quite have the necessary passion. American soprano Angel Blue sings the role of Mimi beautifully, delivering a rich tone and subtle fragility, yet her characterisation is too meek to make an impact and her singing is easily overpowered by the orchestra. On the other hand, David Butt Philip offers an impassioned and tender sing as Rodolfo with a stunning upper register. Together, the central pair don’t quite have the necessary chemistry. That’s especially true by comparison to Jennifer Holloway’s flirtatious Musetta and George von Bergen’s hot-blooded Marcello. Other periphery characters are a little underdeveloped, but the ensemble produce a brilliant sound.
Despite its flaws, there are frequent moments where vocal lyricsm and the sweeping orchestra join harmoniously. That’s testament to Puccini’s sumtuous score and lush orchestration, which remain incredibly moving.
Watch: La Bohéme runs until the 6th December.