Australian director Benedict Andrews has a new production of La bohème currently showing at the ENO which adds a controversial twist to the original Puccini opera. Oftentimes when the word “contemporary” is slammed together with words like “new production” audiences tremble at the potential for disaster. It may be a chance to see something different and brand new, however, its novelty could be much of a blessing as well as a curse. But for a popular classic, consistently picked for repertory, such as La bohème it doesn’t seem like the type of opera that cries for a revamp or needs something changed.
The sweet bohemian tale of a poor poet and poor girl (grisette) falling in love on a freezing Christmas Eve in Victorian Paris is all part of why audiences enjoy the opera so much, yet the tragedy in the final act, where the heroin dies of tuberculosis, is the most heartbreaking scene where sadness and tears are felt amongst the audience. So what is tuberculosis? Doctors regarded the 19th century disease, otherwise known as consumption, as a female disease yet even today, two hundred years later, our modern age also suffers from its own fatal ills.
The production, first staged in Amsterdam with ENO’s co-producer, The Dutch National Opera, is set in Johannes Schütz’s moving apartment loft. Rodolfo and his male artist friends entertain themselves with drink and recreational drugs whilst causing loud scenes in a revolving shopping centre called Café Momas. In the background, children in masks innocently play together as Jon Clark’s moody lights depict the sun setting on a cold winter’s day.
Andrews, who was the brains behind last year’s sell out production of Tennessee Williams’ “A Street Car Named Desire” (with Gillian Anderson) at the Young Vic, has decided to frame the opera by exchanging the heroine’s TB for modern-day heroin addiction. It doesn’t end there. In the world’s best-known aria “Che gelida manina” in Act 1, Andrews instructs Rodolfo (Zach Borichevsky) and Mimì (Corrine Winters) to shoot up. Although this is an adult opera (which the ENO makes audiences fully aware of on the website), the depiction of drug use is a wasteful and superfluous move; it doesn’t enhance the opera in any way.
In fact, it spoils the opera. However, the musical spirit of the ENO orchestra through conductor Xian Zhang with passionate and athletic vocal talent from the young soloists still manages to engage the audience and retain the essence of a resoundingly musical and romantic opera.
Seamstress Mimì, who waits outside of Rodolfo’s home before they have even met, is sung by Winters who has a strong alluring voice. Her vocal skills are confident, yet her portrayal of Mimì is tainted by the heroin taking and it’s not exactly her fault; she also seems less virtuous compared to other versions of Mimì seen before. This leaves Borichevsky as the bad Rodolfo who influences her into taking drugs on their first meeting. Both Borichevsky and Winters appear vocally compatible on stage, even though Borichevsky had a shaky start in Act 1 on the opening night. Sadly Rodolfo unfortunately doesn’t seem like the loving protagonist operagoers are used to here which distorts the original storyline.
Nicholas Masters, Ashley Riches, Duncan Rock and ENO Harewood Artist Rhian Lois are superb supporting singers. They pour humour and feverish power onto their performances. Understandably Andrews could be stating the the cruel and harsh verismo reality of Paris for poor women in 1800’s, but the frustration felt amongst Puccini fans of the explicit needle-sharing scene prove, undeniably, how some productions are fine as they are, unless a better idea comes along. Heroin not included.