Out of the Shadows

Friday, 4 February 2022

Jonathan Miller's production of Puccini's La bohème is in fine fettle as it returns to the London Coliseum

Puccini: La bohème - Sinéad Campbell-Wallace, David Junghoon Kim - English National Opera, 2022 (Photo Genevieve Girling)
Puccini: La bohème - Sinéad Campbell-Wallace, David Junghoon Kim - English National Opera, 2022 (Photo Genevieve Girling)

Puccini La bohème; Sinead Campbell-Wallace, David Junghoon Kim, Louise Alder, Charles Rice, cond: Ben Glassberg; English National Opera at London Coliseum

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 2 February 2022 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A strong revival of Jonathan Miller's classic production with a terrific ensemble cast

Jonathan Miller's handsome 1930s era production of Puccini's La bohème has returned to English National Opera for a long run at the London Coliseum. We caught the performance on Wednesday 2 February 2022 with fine young cast including Sinead Campbell-Wallace as Mimi, David Junghoon Kim as Rodolfo, Charles Rice as Marcello, William Thomas as Colline, Benson Wilson as Schaunard and Louise Alder as Musetta. (At some performances Mimi will be sung by Nadine Benjamin, Schaunard by Alex Otterburn and Musetta by Elin Pritchard). Ben Glassberg conducts the English National Opera orchestra, and the revival director is Crispin Lord.

Miller's production, which debuted in 2005 and was receiving its fifth revival at the London Coliseum, successfully transports the artists to 1930s Paris. The young men no longer inhabit a garret but share a shabby (but well lit) studio which rather successfully makes it clear who these young men are. No longer ageing students, but young artists and one of the strengths of the production remains the way the four leading men are the age they are, rather than attempting over-youthful hi-jinks. Isabella Bywater's sets also remain a thing of imaginative wonder, the way the same two units are made to create three vastly different settings, and we never feel weighed down by the needs of the scene changes.

Puccini: La bohème - David Junghoon Kim, Charles Rice, Benson Wilson, William Thomas - English National Opera, 2022 (Photo Genevieve Girling)
Puccini: La bohème - David Junghoon Kim, Charles Rice, Benson Wilson, William Thomas - English National Opera, 2022 (Photo Genevieve Girling)    

A drawback to the production is a certain coolness of atmosphere, but that can also be an advantage as it gives each cast space in which to create their own characters [we last saw the production in 2018, with Natalya Romaniw and Jonathan Tetelman, see my review]. Campbell-Wallace is a soprano who is moving into more dramatic territory, singing Leonore in Beethoven's Fidelio with Irish National Opera and covering Brunnhilde. She made a poised, very self-possessed Mimi who seemed to know what she wanted, and yet found herself confounded by fate, a modern woman, and not a shy flower. And whilst she might be moving into more dramatic territory, there was a lovely lyric warmth to her singing.

Junghoon Kim (whom we last saw in Summer 2020 as Cavaradossi in ENO's semi-staged performance of Puccini's Tosca at Crystal Palace Bowl) was quite a serious, intense Rodolfo, robustly sung with quite some dramatic weight yet never lacking in romantic ardour. The pair's Act One scene was believably touching, without ever quite tugging the heart strings but their Act Three duet brought out the best in the two and this was a powerful and strongly emotional moment. The end of the opera continued this seriousness of intent, thoughtfully moving,

The other cast formed a strong ensemble around these two. The four artists, David Junghoon Kim, Charles Rice, William Thomas, and Benson Wilson were a strongly characterised and balanced group, with a nice sense of communal spirit, and not too many over-done hi-jinks. Charles Rice made an impressive, world-weary Marcello, struggling with his love for Musetta yet never quite lost in the world of love the way Rodolfo is. William Thomas was a terrific Colline, his Act Four farewell to his overcoat was beautifully sung, but he made a strong contribution throughout, as did Benson Wilson whose warm presence was a key factor in the ensemble.  Louise Alder was a delightful Musetta, her scene in Act Two was a highlight, beautifully sung and very funny, yet she never pulled focus and was part of a team, making a strong contributions to the final two acts.

Puccini: La bohème - Louise Alder - English National Opera, 2022 (Photo Genevieve Girling)
Puccini: La bohème - Louise Alder - English National Opera, 2022 (Photo Genevieve Girling)    

The other cast formed a strongly characterised group around these. Simon Butteriss had great fun in the two contrasting roles of Benoit and Alcindoro, with Adam Sullivan as a quasi-mime artist Parpignol, and Paul Sheehan and Andrew Tinkler as officials.

All the singers made creditable efforts with the text so that for much of the time the surtitles were not needed. There is a lot of dialogue in the opera and it was nice to be able to sit back and follow the drama through the singers.

This was a surprisingly fleet and engaging performance. In the pit, Ben Glassberg kept things moving without ever making us feel rushed and there was a nicely balanced feel to the performance with a terrific sense of detail from the orchestra, something that is important in Puccini where the orchestral commentaries tell us much about the characters and the action.








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