Did anyone hear sobbing? La bohème is one of the great operatic tear-jerkers, yet Benedict Andrews’ new production for English National Opera, previously seen in Amsterdam, left me dry-eyed. Judging by the lack of sobs and sniffles around me, I wasn’t the only one. A cold, clinical set did little to raise the emotional temperature, while stodgy conducting compromised some fine vocal performances. It’s a staging devoid of heart.

Corinne Winters (Mimì) and Zach Borichevsky (Rodolfo) © Tristram Kenton | ENO
Corinne Winters (Mimì) and Zach Borichevsky (Rodolfo)
© Tristram Kenton | ENO

We’re asked to believe this is today’s Paris, yet Rodolfo still hammers out his reviews on a typewriter. (Even our more senior generation of critics has familiarity with the internet.) A copy of Le Figaro is the only French connection. The real problem, though, with setting Bohème in a contemporary setting is that, in Paris, people no longer die from tuberculosis. Andrews circumvents this by showing Mimì and Rodolfo shooting up heroin – that’s some first date! – and presumably her habit grows from there (Marcello inspects her wrists when he declares “You’re coughing” in Act III). It’s not an unreasonable proposition.

Mimì is no sweet innocent. She stalks Rodolfo in Act I, hovering outside, eavesdropping, waiting for him to be alone to seize her moment. They don’t use the candle for illumination – hardly necessary when over-bright moonlight beams through the frosted pane – but to prepare the heroin they both inject during “Che gelida manina”. What is one of the most romantic encounters in opera is thus rendered devoid of romance and has the audience wincing. It lends Rodolfo’s declaration that he has “a few more lines to finish” before joining his friends at Café Momus a double edge. Andrews over-eggs it when the first words in Act IV are from one of the children on the suburban swings outside: “I’m so high!”. Quite.

Act II is a sprawling mess. Johannes Schütz’s set splits apart and different sections are wheeled around for cast and chorus to clumsily negotiate. Just as we think we’ve established which sections are “inside”, a bunch of children spills through the invisible “wall” into Momus. The sparse set for Act III holds promise; a small building for the inn where Marcello and Musetta have found employment, a fire burning, snow swirling, all lit atmospherically by Jon Clark. It is then spoilt by having that building on a revolve, allowing us to peek inside at the cramped goings-on. Fair enough, but to send it on another spin during the act’s closing moments is to completely distract from Mimì and Rodolfo, who have just – amicably, regretfully – broken up. Act IV delivered springtime, all bright sunlight and leaves.

Zach Borichevsky (Rodolfo) and Corinne Winters (Mimì) © Tristram Kenton | ENO
Zach Borichevsky (Rodolfo) and Corinne Winters (Mimì)
© Tristram Kenton | ENO

Vocal performances on opening night were mixed. Pick of the bohemian boys were the two baritones: Duncan Rock’s sympathetic, warmly sung Marcello, and Ashley Riches’ more incisive Schaunard. Zach Borichevsky has a pleasant, light tenor but he struggled to make much of an impression as Rodolfo, coming to grief at the climax of his big aria. Rhian Lois was a sparky Musetta, a soubrettish soprano with plenty of attack… physically too, with Simon Butteriss’ blustering Alcindoro on the receiving end.

Duncan Rock (Marcello) and Corinne Winters (Mimì) © Tristram Kenton | ENO
Duncan Rock (Marcello) and Corinne Winters (Mimì)
© Tristram Kenton | ENO

Corinne Winters’ Mimì was the evening’s heroine, the undisputed bright spot. The burnished warmth in her soprano as she declares that “Gently the April sunlight will kiss me” was lovely, gorgeously phrased. I long to hear her sing the role in Italian. She nailed the top C at the end of “O soave fanciulla”, sung not off-stage, as Rodolfo and Mimì head off into moonlit Paris, but collapsed on a mattress. Winters sang her heart out in her Act III farewell, but the orchestra went astray here, in a disappointing night under Xian Zhang.

Recent pronouncements from the Coliseum have referred to the ENO “brand”. Sadly, this is yet another example of the company replacing a much-loved production of an operatic staple with an inferior “product” which won’t have audiences coming back time and time again. Economic suicide.