Jonathan Miller was one of the reasons I started to take notice of opera in my early twenties. On camera, Miller spoke impressively of his aims to change opera for the better. Inventor of the time-shift opera, he was bent on creating better, more authentic drama. Out went the kitschy costumes, bad acting and antiquated sets so often associated with the opera genre.
In the 1980s Miller’s cinematic staging drew new audiences and his innovative stage direction breathed new life into iconic opera characters. People wanted to be entertained as well as hear the greats sing but predictably some opera stars were reluctant to change and refused to take orders from Miller. After many successes and a few run-ins with management and stars, Miller announced his departure in 2004, aged 74. Five years later however he was back staging La Bohème for ENO in 2009. His production was repeated a year later and in 2013, with Natasha Metherell in charge of the revival’s direction, the production was deemed flawless on every level by opera critics.
As the curtain went up on the opening night of the fourth revival of Miller’s ‘La Bohème’, I sighed with pleasure as I took in the 1930s artist studio with its high, narrow windows, lit to perfection. Rodolfo and Marcello working at the window in the dwindling light, painted the perfect picture of Bohemian Paris. Marcello, artist, had been stripped of his beret and smock and his thumb was not pointed at an easel. No easel in sight. Miller had spirited away all the embarrassing clichés of previous 19th century-inspired productions.
The scene with Rodolfo and Marcello and fellow bohemians gently ribbing each other and jokingly bemoaning their fate, was authentic and charming. Comedic moments supplied by landlord, Benoît, were a joy. Simon Butteriss in the role was so close to Leonard Rossiter’s character in the sitcom Rising Damp. His boasts and gripes about the female race: “Skinny women are here to spite us“, elicited laughter from a row of girls seated behind me in the dress circle.
A more serious Jonathan Tetelman in the all important role of Rodolfo was making his European debut. His voice, though sensitive and sweet, especially in the upper register, came across as tight alongside Nicholas Lester, whose warm, more assured delivery was perfect for his Marcello role.
In the interval, my neighbours wondered whether Tetelman should have turned to face the audience more. True – the set may have been a little challenging for him. The Paris studio was set back on the stage and Lester and Tetelman were singing from an upper level. Their voices had to carry across the stage, over the orchestra pit, across to us in the dress circle.
That said, the friendship between Rodolfo and Marcello was artfully portrayed. Tetelman is potentially good in a romantic role too but with Natalya Romaniw’s soprano, who sang the part of Mimi, mostly to perfection, his voice was not put to full advantage. The all-important moving arias of Act One were however well executed by both singers.
Rodolfo’s and Mimi’s love is subsumed in the hustle and bustle of Act Two. The stage set was striking: a café, with mirrors down one wall, a row of apartment buildings and roof tops disappearing off into the distance to the right of the stage, giving it great depth and breath. This allowed the chorus room to move around in and for the military band to break through the crowd and march off to great fanfare.
If Act Two is all about lightness and movement, Act Three plunges the audience into an atmosphere of darkness, stillness and hell. Miller’s set does this so eloquently. Two prostitutes straight out of a Brassai photograph loiter for business outside a dimly lit bar. Mimi appears from a partially-lit alleyway looking pale and anxious. The quartet when it came, with Mimi and Rodolpho versus Musetta and Marcello, worked quite well, Mimi and Rodolpho’s poignant lyricism piercing through Musetta’s and Marcello’s bickering. Nadine Benjamin, fresh from ENO’s enormously successful Porgy and Bess, where she played the role of Clara, portrayed a rather pared down version of Musetta. She was not as confidently petulant as I would have liked. Her voice was at its best in the final act when she had given up on flirtatiousness and sung movingly around the dying Mimi.
The star of the evening was without a doubt Natalya Romaniw, who was singing the role of Mimi for the first time. Having already been impressed by footage of her singing in the role of Tatyana in Eugene Onegin at Garsington, I knew I would already be in for a treat with La Bohème. Something in that mournful timbre of hers just seizes your heart. Her portrayal of Mimi has still a way to go, but her voice lingers in your head days after you have heard her sing. A true star, Romaniw brings further magic to what is already an arresting production.
La Boheme continues in repertory at ENO until 22 February 2019
(Header image: Jonathan Tetelman and Natalya Romaniw)