In ENO’s Bohème Conductor Ben Glassberg Breathes New Life into Puccini’s Score. 

It has been a few years since I last saw La Bohème performed at ENO. In 2019, soprano Natalya Romaniw, sang a magnificent Mimi in that mournful timbre of hers, beautifully conveying the soul of Puccini’s ill-fated seamstress. 

For the 2022 season, soprano, Sinéad Campbell-Wallace has taken on the iconic role. 

Her bright-sounding soprano couldn’t be more different from Romaniw’s melancholic tone. Campbell-Wallace’s voice has power, which at times needed to be checked on the night I went. In Act 111 when Mimi’s TB has taken a turn for the worse, Campbell-Wallace’s voice lacked frailty. When she was able to control it, in the duets and quartets, her voice glowed, and she was back in Mimi’s gentle character. Campbell Wallace is purportedly training to sing Wagner which might explain the heft in her voice.

Meanwhile David Junghoon Kim as Rodolfo, had a marvellous soaring Italianate tenor. Unfortunately, his lower register on the night came out as a whisper, so much so, that at times he was inaudible. Mimi and he were awkward with each other, and this is what the story requires. Critics often talk about lack of chemistry between the lovers and tend to blame the singers. Campbell-Wallace and Junghoon Kim were touching however, especially in the love duets and the quartet with Marcello and Musetta where their contrasting temperaments in love came to the fore. The romantic and lyrical Rodolfo and Mimi sang: “Our time for parting’s when the roses blow”. Marcello’s and Musetta meanwhile exchanged insults: “Viper!” “Toad”. 

Yet Marcello concedes that he is “easy with Musetta” and it showed on stage. Charles Rice, as Marcello, was at once seductive and sympathetic. The teasing, generous Musetta was well drawn by Louise Alder. The farewell quartet was as beautiful as it should be.

The mock fights and high jinx between students, Rodolfo, Marcello, Schaunard, (Alex Otterburn a joy) brought lightness to this otherwise dark drama. ENO Harewood Artist, William Thomas, singing Colline the philosopher, performed a show-stopping ‘Song of the Coat’. His first prize in the 2019 Kathleen Ferrier Awards comes as no surprise. 

In the pit, Puccini’s lush score was given extra polish and shape under Ben Glassberg’s baton. I was impressed by the sudden crescendos, the exquisite pianissimos, and the clearness of his vision. The orchestral strings played divinely in his hands.

Revival director, Crispin Lord made a good job of the crowd scenes. Each group, street character neatly made their appearance and retreated. There was focus and not the jumble that can sometimes occur on stage around the Café Momus.

In the end, this felt like a cohesive production, one which will endure. Brassai’s Paris reconstructed from photographs, is still bewitching as a stage set. In amongst the garrets, the bars, the dark alleyways, we, as an audience, still feel the cold, poverty and the moments of ephemeral joy experienced around the Café Momus.

Several young people in a row behind me gasped in wonder when the snow arrived Act 111.

Recommended for those who still relish Puccini’s score, in this case conducted with aplomb, by young conductor, Ben Glassberg. I’ll be watching his progress with great interest.

Performances of La Bohème at the London Coliseum 19.30 February 10, 12, 19, 23,25,27 and 14.30 matinées 12, 19, 27

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