Jonathan Miller’s 2009 La bohème is now enjoying its fourth revival and Natascha Metherell once again presides over its staging. Its restraint combines humour, well-defined characterisations and a slow release of emotional tension that burns with gut-wrenching intensity in the final moments. Isabella Bywater’s revolving set transforms a slightly-too-tidy loft to reveal a bustling café and a bleakly winter street scene – the whole atmospherically lit by Jean Kalman who draws inspiration from Brassaï’s evocative photographs. Nothing intrudes gratuitously on her reimagining of Paris of the 1930s – its desolate outlines in Act Three, untouched by Christmas card snow, sustains a fine line between realism and romanticism. If the success of La bohème is judged on whether it draws a tear – then this scores moderately well – based on a slight moistening of the eyes during Mimi’s farewell duet in Act Three.Given Miller and Bywater’s nod towards the Depression there’s not much attempt to suggest poverty – cold and hunger are outlined readily by the four artist friends (looking like well-nourished Cambridge undergraduates), but Mimi’s plain dress and neat white collar hardly indicate an impoverished seamstress. Likewise, her straight-backed posture conveys the emotional detachment of a domestic governess rather than a fragile working girl with failing lungs. A buzzing Café Momus is stylishly decked out (you can almost smell the coffee and Gauloises), a brazier, lofty balloons and flower-seller add verisimilitude, and the ENO Chorus and the children are in commendable form.
Solo singers are generally pleasing but not so impressive as to create a truly lasting impact. As Mimi, Natalya Romaniw brings cool restraint, vulnerability and finally pity with consistently clear, pure tones which are technically secure, but stopping short of rapturous. I warmed to her eventually, and hope the recital-room deportment is more about nerves than directorial imposition. No such reservations mark Jonathan Tetelman’s performance as Rodolfo – whose ardour is unmistakable, his emotions spilling over with blazing conviction. There are ringing tones at the top of his register, and in time he will knock out a winner of an aria from Act One when the tightness impeding a very promising instrument disappears.
Nicholas Lester makes a fine Marcello, projecting affability and commanding resonance in equal measure. Elsewhere, David Soar as Colline draws the ear in an impressively rich-toned ‘overcoat’ aria and Božidar Smiljanić is a dependable Schaunard. Simon Butteriss makes the most of his two cameo roles, a ‘cor blimey’ Benoit and a dapper “toothpick of a man” as Alcindoro. Nadine Benjamin grasps the nettle of Musetta’s complex character, relishing her attention-seeking, brazen love life, turbulent relationships, and finally revealing her better nature. Her singing is a joy too. Alexander Joel fashions a fluid and sensitive reading, alert to Puccini’s lavish score and the needs of the cast.