Tuesday 27 November 2018

Naturalism and realism: Puccini's La Boheme with Natalya Romaniw and Jonathan Tetelman

Puccini: La bohème - English National Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Puccini: La bohème - English National Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Puccini La Boheme; Natalya Romaniw, Jonathan Tetelman, Nicholas Lester, Nadine Benjamin, David Soar, Božidar Smiljanic, dir: Jonathan Miller/Natascha Metherell, cond: Alexander Joel; English National Opera at the London Coliseum Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 27 November 2018 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
Jonathan Miller's 1930s Paris setting in a stylish revival with a fine young cast

Puccini: La bohème - Jonathan Tetelman, Natalya Romaniw - English National Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Puccini: La bohème - Jonathan Tetelman, Natalya Romaniw
English National Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
English National Opera has revived its production of Puccini's La Boheme, originally directed by Jonathan Miller in 2009 in celebration of the 40th anniversary of Miller's first production at ENO. This revival, revival director Natascha Metherell, featured Natalya Romaniw (making her ENO debut) as Mimi and Jonathan Tetelman (making his European debut) as Rodolfo, with Nicholas Lester as Marcello, Nadine Benjamin as Musetta, David Soar as Colline, Božidar Smiljanic as Schaunard and Simon Butteriss as Benoit & Alcindoro. Alexander Joel conducted.

Miller sets the piece in 1930s Paris, with handsome designs by Isabella Bywater, and it certainly looks very good with an amazing amount of detail in the production. But placing the artists' attic so far up-stage was perhaps not the best idea when casting with young voices in the London Coliseum, and certainly in Acts One and Four the balance often rather favoured the orchestra and you longed to hear this fine young cast in a smaller theatre.

One question which always needs to be answered with La Boheme is how real are these artists, Bohemianism was very much an artistic construct and a case can be made either for them being genuine struggling artists or people simply participating in a lifestyle. Arguments can be made both ways, that the first and last acts include moments from Puccini's own indigent student days, or that the piece is affected by the young Puccini's engagement with the older Italian artists from the Scapigliatura movement (the Italian equivalent of Bohemianism).

Puccini: La bohème - Nadine Benjamin, Nicholas Lester - English National Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Puccini: La bohème - Nadine Benjamin, Nicholas Lester
English National Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Miller is firmly on the side of the men being struggling artists. There is no play-acting here, the whole production is highly naturalistic. The artists' attic is a real studio, Marcello is busy in Act One making real art. But that means that there needs to be an element of urgency and desperation to the action, we need to know that the men have nowhere to go. Similarly the women are existing on the fringes of society, and despair is never far away. I am not sure that Miller's production quite conveys this. The action, though detailed, never quite gives you the feeling of the gnawing anxiety of poverty, and the raw earthy emotions that Puccini's music, at its best, really does convey.

Natalya Romaniw made a poised Mimi. In Act One, this was beautifully sung and rather touching, but perhaps a little too aware of her stylishness. Romaniw was at her best in the painful scenes in Act Three, when we were less aware of the milieu and concentrated more on her character, and her death scene was beautifully naturalistic. Again touching, but you felt a little less naturalism might have allowed Romaniw to be a little more gut wrenching. After all, opera is not a naturalistic medium.

As Rodolfo, the young American tenor Jonathan Tetelman displayed a characterfully interesting tenor voice, but one which is perhaps does not quite have the amplitude for the London Coliseum. I felt that he was pushing too much in the big moments, and he was at his best in the quieter sections when he brought a nice naturalism to his technique. He made a highly personable Rodolfo, perhaps a bit too nice and a greater sense of temperament would have been welcome. His relationship with Romaniw's Mimi was perhaps touching rather than scorching, but that fitted with the slightly cool feeling of the production.

Puccini: La bohème - David Soar - English National Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Puccini: La bohème - David Soar
English National Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
The roles of Marcello and Musetta are deliberately constrasting with the two leading roles, and as a result are more highly coloured, and it was certainly in Act Two when the production really came alive. Nadine Benjamin as a Josephine Baker-like performer brought real temperament to the role of Musetta, singing the Waltz Song in engaging manner and throughout giving us a real feel of character. And her relationship with Nicholas Lester's Marcello really crackled, and Lester brought a sense of gravitas to Marcello and a feeling of those simmering emotions underneath, a decent chap adrift in a sea of emotions.

The other two artists were nicely contrasting, so that the four of them did make an interesting bunch rather than the four feeling a little interchangable, as sometimes can happen. Božidar Smiljanic was the good bloke living in crazy circumstances, whilst there was something delightfully Eeore-ish about David Soar's Colline, complete with a fine farewell to his overcoat. Given that these are artists, not playacting young men, the hi-jinks is kept to a minumum which at least removes the sense of embarassment which can happen. Yet the four interacted well, and created a believable sense of unity, you could imagine these four living together. Simon Butteriss had great fun as Benoit and Alcindoro, creating deeply etched characters for each.

The chorus was on fine form in Act Two, really fulfilling Miller's desire for a realistic panolply of action and crowding in to give the feeling of real life jostling the Bohemians. The childrens' chorus,  from the Tiffin Boys' Choir and Tiffin Children's Chorus, was on form too.

In the pit, Alexander Joel conducted an efficient account of the score. This was a relatively swiftly paced evening, and in accordance with the feeling of naturalism and realism, Joel kept things flowing along and you never felt him pulling Puccini's melodies about. Sometimes, though, I rather wanted him to do that.

I have to confess that I found that Amanda Holden's translation, with its modernisms, rather jarred occasionally and I longed for a language which was more in keeping with the 1930s milieu. Also, I felt that there were moments when the audience laughed at the surtitles rather than what was happening on stage. Diction was patchy, the cast was clearly working hard but the combination of set and acoustics was against them.

Puccini: La bohème - Jonathan Tetelman, Nicholas Lester, David Soar, Bozidar Smiljanic - English National Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
Puccini: La bohème - Jonathan Tetelman, Nicholas Lester, David Soar, Bozidar Smiljanic
English National Opera (Photo Robert Workman)
This was a fine evening, and there is quite a long run. I suspect that if I went back in a week or so's time, I would feel differently about the  production as performances bed in, and once first night nerves are over, emotions get heightened and more risks are taken.

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • A 20th century monument: Hindemith's five brass sonatas  (★★★★) - CD review
  • Old Bones: Nico Muhly, Iestyn Davies and the Aurora Orchestra at Kings Place (★★★½) - concert review
  • Storytelling in music: Kevin Puts and his opera Silent Night - interview
  • Puccini premiere:  Opera Rara gives the original version of Le Willis a rare outing (★★★★) -  Opera review
  • Long time ago: Samling showcase at the Wigmore Hall (★★★★) - concert review
  • A series of concentric circles: Aaron Holloway-Nahum and the Riot Ensemble  - interview
  • Auf Flügeln des Gesanges: Romantic songs and piano transcriptions from Christoph Prégardien & Cyprien Katsaris (★★★★★) - CD review
  • The English Concert in Baroque concertos  - (★★★★) CD review
  • Widening the audience: I chat to Christopher Glynn about his Schubert in English project - interview
  • Staging the unstageable: Britten's War Requiem at English National Opera (★★★★) - opera review
  • Rare Tchaikovsky and Smyth: an earlier version of the piano concerto and Smyth's large-scale mass at the Barbican  (★★★★) - concert review
  • Elgar, Finzi, Parry, Walton from a different angle: arrangements for brass septet  (★★★★) - CD review
  • Love & Prayer: Nadine Benjamin debut solo album (★★★★) - CD review
  • A sense of subtext: Joe Cutler's Elsewhereness on NMC (★★★★) - CD review
  •  Home

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