Jonathan Miller’s La bohème is back and, to coin a phrase, it rocks like 2015 never happened. That was the year English National Opera, in its darkest days of self-lacerating panic, entrusted Puccini’s beloved opera to maverick director Benedict Andrews, he of the heroin-cool heroine. That fiasco was junked after a single run and now, to no one’s surprise, the company has reverted to the tried and tested.

Natalya Romaniw (Mimì), Jonathan Tetelman (Rodolfo) and Nicholas Lester (Marcello) © Robert Workman
Natalya Romaniw (Mimì), Jonathan Tetelman (Rodolfo) and Nicholas Lester (Marcello)
© Robert Workman

Miller advances the action by thirty years to a semi-monochrome cityscape that Isabella Bywater has designed, handsomely, to evoke the Paris of romantic photographers like Brassaï and Cartier-Bresson. Giant scenic elements trundle into different configurations as the tale moves between the poorer quartiers of Paris, with an especially atmospheric third act set in a shabby arrondissement near the city’s perimeter.

<i>La bohème</i> Act 2 © Robert Workman
La bohème Act 2
© Robert Workman

It is not without its problems, chiefly the first-floor garret set where everyone sings in front of a slanting roof that sends voices straight up to the fly gallery. The present cast copes better than most of its predecessors with this acoustically troublesome design flaw, but it remains an issue. So does Natascha Metherell’s revival of the busy Act 2, which is no longer as precisely managed as in 2009 when Miller first conceived it and has shed some of its incidental humour. Even more carelessly, Musetta (Nadine Benjamin in a musically sumptuous, Josephine Baker-inspired performance) is stranded two rooms away when Mimì’s need for gloves is mentioned, yet she still offers to go and buy some.

Natalya Romaniw (Mimì) © Robert Workman
Natalya Romaniw (Mimì)
© Robert Workman

The production gives Natalya Romaniw a house debut to savour, and the Welsh diva conquers London with the radiant bloom of her spinto soprano. She sings with such intelligence: for example, as death approaches, her Mimì succumbs to confusion and adds heartbreaking emphasis to the last four words of “I’m always called Mimì / But I don’t know why”.

As Britain’s Tatyana of choice, Romaniw is reunited with Nicholas Lester, her Onegin at WNO, who brings dramatic heft and baritonal beauty to the key role of Marcello, Musetta’s love-hate lover. David Soar is ideally cast as the thoughtful Colline and Božidar Smiljanić contributes energy and style as Schaunard.

Jonathan Tetelman (Rodolfo) and Natalya Romaniw (Mimì) © Robert Workman
Jonathan Tetelman (Rodolfo) and Natalya Romaniw (Mimì)
© Robert Workman

As Rodolfo, the American Jonathan Tetelman makes his European debut here ahead of singing Cavaradossi at next summer’s Aix-en-Provence Festival. His voice is forthright but unrelaxed, lacking the pliancy of a true romantic tenor, but he commits to the role with persuasive dramatic engagement. Some of his money notes threatened to fray on opening night but he just about managed to deliver them all.

Royal Opera regular Alexander Joel makes his first St Martin’s Lane appearance in the pit and secures ravishing playing from the ENO Orchestra, whom he treats to some grateful tempo choices, while the Chorus adds its reliable excellence to the sound picture. In his two buffo roles as Benoît and Alcindoro, Simon Butteriss is given a jester’s licence to play around with funny accents. Pro that he is, he gets away with murder.

****1