Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Realism and artifice in bohemia

We were in London again at the weekend, this time to see Jonathan Miller's new production of La Boheme at the English National Opera. Now, although I'm a fairly keen listener to opera on CD, I've been to very few live performances, so what follows is by no means an expert review.

As with our visit to the RSC the week before, our expectations had been lowered by some of the reviews, which suggested that Miller's translation of the drama to a sepia-tinted 1930s Paris had drained the production of much of its glamour and colour. I half-agreed. The opening and closing acts, set in the garret shared by the struggling young artists and writers, were rather dull on the eye. But I thought the staging for the middle two acts, and especially Act 2's monochrome re-creation of a Parisian cafe, was quite stunning.

A bigger problem, for me, was the tension between Miller's attempt to infuse the opera with naturalism and the intrinsic artificiality of the operatic genre. Whether as a result of directorial planning or inherent acting ability, the performances of Hanan Alattar as Musetta and Roland Wood as Marcello, and the interactions between them, were dynamic and engaging. But although Alfie Boe as Rodolfo and Melody Moore as Mimi turned in musically perfect performances, their relationship was rarely convincing. In contrast to the attempted realism of the setting, the two lovers hardly looked at each other. And although she's obviously an accomplished singer, it took a leap of the audience's imagination to see Moore as a frail Mimi, or to believe that her polished articulation was that of a poor seamstress.

I see that Boe sang Rodolfo in Baz Luhrmann's Broadway production of the opera - and I wonder whether Luhrmann's knowing artificiality actually suits the genre better than Miller's half-achieved realism.

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