La Bohème – Winters, Borichevsky, Rock – The Coliseum/ENO, 31st October 2015

I was – perhaps for the first time ever – offended by something I saw in an opera house.

I confess I admire Bohème. It has a touch of romance, tragedy and good music when well-played. This performance really had none of those elements.

Director Benedict Andrews’ vision is understandable but horrible, utterly devoid of romance or charm. Mimi and Rudolfo meet in his room, and they begin to sing about who they are. “Why is he showing her a spoon?” I thought. “Is he really…?  yes he is really….*facepalm*” yes, he really grabs a belt, ties off, taps a syringe and shoots up. High irony here, fair enough: he dreams of being a millionaire, castles in the air, and it’s all drug related dreaming but better would have been just to have perhaps indicated drug paraphernalia. I could just about take Rudolfo as a kind of junkie, Coleridge-like, seeking inspiration. Unforgivable was for him then to tie off Mimi, tap her vein and inject her too. “Just a few more lines” says Rudolfo to his mates as they ask him to go to Momus. One imagines he didn’t mean typed ones.

To cap it off, the couple sing “O soave fanciulla/“Oh girl in the moonlight” in a haze of drug bliss, ironic indeed, but not at all moving when Mimi just lies on top of her new lover and they both look like human slugs.

A better director would have done a better job creating a sordid world where casual drug abuse fit in. As it was, it was out of the blue, as much disappointing for being non sequitur rather than shocking. It seemed that Rudolfo, rather ill-defined at the stage of the opera, suddenly revealed himself to be a monster, sending the whole opera off into a squalid tangent and scuppering the whole opera as intended to be played. The chance to create romance had gone. Andrews probably would reply this was his intent, to strip the layer of sentiment away, or to make us question the opera or our own society but if that was so, it didn’t work.

Perhaps I missed some back story. Perhaps they live in a drug den, on the wrong side of the tracks…but it looked quite a nice place. Perhaps they are middle class addicts, or feckless rich kids (I favour this one, as the apartment must be worth hundreds of thousands, what with its airy spaces and lovely high windows overlooking a park). Perhaps Mimi is a druggie, but this wasn’t shown This was a bizarre, gratuitous episode and it felt out of place and sordid. It wasn’t alone. Near the close of the opera as Mimi is abed, dying quietly, the music swells and Rudolfo rushes to her side. Most productions have a kiss and a desperate hug. Here, it was about twenty seconds of lusty snogging, so wrong in tone I couldn’t quite believe it, and still can’t. I reckon Andrews wanted us to show that these kids are facile, impulsive, narcissistic? Right? (Right?)
Dressing Mimi up in a stripper’s pink wig was the least worst aspect of this show. Aptly enough for this performance, grotesquery abounded.  The children in Act II are dressed n fright masks, and don’t really remove them. They openly mock Mimi as she asks for an ice cream.  Parpignol is a horror-movie type clown, (picture Crusty the clown from the Simpsons but given a sinister veneer) and he reveals himself to be a raging alcoholic, staggering, bottle in hand at the Act’s close (Murray Kimmins, singing well despite this).  Rudolfo’s mates walk through a kids’ ball game at the rear of the stage and steal their ball just to be mean. This episode sums up the whole opera:  mean without reason, not so well done as to throw the whole opera into comment about itself or our society. Marcello sings “this is great entertainment!” in Act II. It’s not. It’s not even didactic, or corrective for us to reflect on our society. It’s just perverse and bad.

Marcello himself, Duncan Rock, ensured there was some redeeming feature to the afternoon. His baritone is assured, wonderfully resonant, and his acting skills were good. Of great note was his Act III line “two dark eyes” when singing about Musetta: beautiful to hear. As to Musetta herself (ENO stalwart Rhian Lois) I don’t think the role quite suited her. Her “As I Go Walking” aria was OK. Unfortunately when she gave away her earrings to be pawned, I wasn’t quite convinced of the urgency underwriting her decision, she looked as if she was asking Marcello to go to the shops for some milk. She also kicks Alcindoro (Simon Butteriss) to the floor in Act II. Butteriss was great fun as Benoit and Alcindoro, and in the former suceeded in acting everyone off the stage, singing marvellously too. Splendid.

Mimi was solidly voiced, and cutely acted by diminutive Corinne Winters (it doesn’t help that all the guys look about six foot tall plus). She died as squalid as it was suggested she had lived, slumped in a corner. Why Andrews decided to have her agitatedly stand outside the glass door to Rudolfo’s apartment for fifteen minutes or so of Act One, I don’t know. I do know that it was for me, a regrettable choice, distracting slightly from the main stage action, and robbing her moment of actual entrance of its dramatic force.

Zach Borichevsky sounded like Rudolfo wasn’t his most comfortable sing. I think the role lies just at the edge of natural range, and it sounded a bit of a push in places, without the total ease of production which satisfies the ear. I did though like his second despairing “Mimi!” at the end, given in a broken whisper. He deserves to be a better Rudolfo in a better production.

For staging  (Johannes Schütz) Act One saw a nicely convincing apartment, which advances towards the audience, neatly encapsulating Andrews intent to shove his ideas in our faces. Act Two was a confusing whirlwind of sub-sets pushed around by men dressed as waiters. I was surprised no-one got sick. Act Three saw a very tiny apartment building-cum-bar, which was probably a brothel, which also rotated a bit. It “snowed” too which worked well.

Conducting from Xian Zhang was similar to the stage production, and sadly as fitting: no sweep of momentum, little care for poetry or beauty and with no aspect of romance or tenderness. a very by-the-book, account. Puccini can only do so much, and bears so little. This was high-regie, selfishly so. What a shame the beleaguered ENO presented it.

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