Magazine article The Spectator

Romantic Squalor

Magazine article The Spectator

Romantic Squalor

Article excerpt

La Boheme

English National Opera

The Demon

Barbican

Of all the most popular operas of Puccini, La Bohème is the one that has attracted least critical fire, and that, even during the long period when highbrows were required to despise him, was exempted from the general interdict.

Even though the heroine dies a harrowing death, at least it is from natural causes, she is surrounded by people who love her, and her brief happiness earlier in the opera is set to the most gorgeous, and two of the lengthiest, arias that Puccini ever wrote. So the element of sadism that is so disturbing in several of the other operas is wholly absent here, and for all the cold and hunger and illness the drama and the music conjure a prelapsarian world.

Not only has Bohème proved producerproof, on the whole producers have contented themselves with mild adjustments to the period in which it is set, and haven't found ways to 'deconstruct' it. Jonathan Miller is, in any case, opposed to deconstructive productions, and that may have some connection to his otherwise inexplicable absence in the UK as an operatic director in the past 20 years, about which he has been justifiably outspoken. His new production of Bohème has been much speculated about but, now that we have witnessed it, it turns out to be extraordinarily inconspicuous. He is quoted in the programme as saying, 'I want to make it as much like a movie as it could possibly be. I'm basing the artists' relationship on the movie Withnail and I -- shabby, upperclass boys who think squalor is very romantic.' If he hadn't said it you would never have guessed. The sets, uniformly colourless and depressing, move with admirable speed to ensure there's no break at all between the first two acts, and between the last two. But you see upstairs and down, outside and in, in a way that is not like any movie I recall, and I have never seen one, either, in which the acting is so obviously that of opera singers rather than movie stars. Nor, apart from some of the clothes and hairstyles, would I have identified the Bohemians as 'shabby, upperclass boys', and it's hard to see how thinking squalor is romantic could be conveyed anyway, especially when they are clearly not enjoying their impoverished condition.

So what we get is a surprisingly anonymous production, which will no doubt last for many years, and accommodate many different performers. What we don't get, with this first team of performers, is any sharp characterisation, apart from the Musetta of Hanan Alattar, whose warm-heartedness enlivens each scene she appears in; unfortunately she has a rasping, raucous voice which turns the Waltz Song into a brief ordeal. …

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