On the one hand there's the genteel, playful poverty of intellectuals playing at pennilessness, one at least waiting for his inheritance. And there's the genuine near-destitution of seamstress Mimì, whose only prospect of levelling up is a man with money.
Would the late, left-wing director Jonathan Miller, devising his delectable English National Opera production of La Bohème the year before an austerity government came to power in 2010, have gone about it in the same way in 2022? Poverty is not quite as picturesque these days. Nonetheless, this is a brilliant staging, set in Paris in the 1930s, with no intimation of international trouble ahead, and a feast for the eye and ear.
David Junghoon Kim as Rodolfo and Sinéad Campbell-Wallace as Mimì. Photo: Genevieve Girling
In its hugely affecting, Drive and Live open-air La Bohème at Alexandra Palace in the summer of 2020, directed by PJ Harris, the poor were really poor, living in trailers. Miller's hard-up youngsters fare better, with moonlit attic lodgings and the go-to Café Momus on hand. One Drive and Live poet Rodolfo, tenor David Junghoon Kim, returns to the role at the Coliseum, gleefully roistering with his flatmates, and stricken both by his own failings and by the mortal illness of his lover Mimì.
And what a revelation this Mimì is – Sinéad Campbell-Wallace makes her ENO debut, and we are sure to see and hear more of her. Elsewhere, she already as Puccini's Tosca under her belt, and Tchaikovsky's Tatyana in Eugene Onegin lies ahead. It's easy to see why, as she conveys in Mimì both fragility and the gleam in her radiant top notes of a glimpse at a brighter horizon. Remember her name.
Mimì and Rodolfo meet by chance, when in her adjoining lodgings her candle blows out. Their instant attraction is tested by time and jealousy, until a heart-wrenching turn in their story. On the way to a searing parting, we meet Rodolfo's flatmates: Samoan baritone Benson Wilson as jokey musician Schaunard, bass William Thomas, bidding a soulful farewell to his overcoat when money is needed for ailing Mimì, and Charles Rice's painter Marcello, exasperated by on-off girlfriend Musetta. The late Amanda Holden's sparky translation is everyone's best friend.
Louise Alder's Musetta rules the roost. Photo: Genevieve Girling
As Musetta, there is luxury casting in the form of soprano Louise Alder, whose vivacity is matched by her vocal technique, every note subtly coloured. Simon Butteriss is as hilarious as ever as the easily flattered landlord, and Musetta's sugar daddy.
On stage the colour palette in Isabella Bywater's set and costume designs favours greys, the brightness coming from the Act One high jinks, and Act Two street and restaurant scenes. When the snow falls, no one has enough clothes on; the urge to pass cashmere wraps up to the stage becomes overwhelming.
Also making his house debut, conductor Ben Glassberg sets off at a gallop with the ENO orchestra, the clatter of hooves in this thrilling chase through Puccini's rangy score occasionally overpowering the soloists.
Miller's production has been a reliable favourite in the repertory at the Coliseum, and may well go on and on. But one day, a director from a new generation is going to look at this story anew, and good luck to them. In the meantime, catch this classic while you can. Maybe take a newcomer to opera. They'll be hooked.
La Bohème is sung in English with English surtitles. Further performances are on 4, 10, 12, 19, 23, 25 and 27 Feb at 7:30PM, and on 5, 12, 19, 27 Feb at 2:30PM
|What||La Bohème, English National Opera 2022 review|
|Where||English National Opera, London Coliseum, St Martin's Lane, London, WC2N 4ES | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Embankment (underground)|
31 Jan 22 – 27 Feb 22, 13 performances, nine at 7:30PM and four at 2:30PM. Running time 2hr 15min including one interval
|Website||Click here for more information and booking|