What to do with a “classic revival” that has, in the main, met the critics’ eye of approval? That was the question facing Natascha Metherell, the revival director of ENO’s production of La bohème, which opened this week at the Coliseum. The revival was in fact deftly handled: a production which remained faithful to Miller’s original vision, with honest, rather than over-egged, sentimentality.

© Donald Cooper
© Donald Cooper

In recent times, ENO has come under fire for some baffling production decisions, so it was good to see La bohème return with this setting in 1930s Paris; undaring, perhaps, but the bohemian way of life, which is very distinctly la vie parisienne, is so intrinsic to Puccini’s work that it becomes difficult to pull off any more radical departure from Illica and Giacosa’s original vision, set in the 1840s.

There is nothing especially snazzy about this production, but that is no bad thing. In this case, the libretto, empowered by Puccini’s masterful scoring, does much of the talking, and the absence of the bright lights of ENO’s most recent outing of Don Giovanni and the glitter of its fabulous Medea was welcome. Having said that, the set is a crucial backdrop to the story. With its anaemic palette, Isabella Bywater’s cleverly designed, consumptively dusty and crumbling set evokes the faded charm of Parisian backstreets. Jean Kalman’s lighting design further enhances the muted colours, and makese it decidedly clear that we are in the midst of a very bleak winter.

A dramatically strong cast brought the tragic love story of La bohème vividly to life. ENO Harewood Artist Kate Valentine plays the guileless Mimì extraordinarily well. Her strong soprano was a delight to listen to, even if, at times, a little more nuance would have brought an extra touch of magic. Making her ENO debut, the American soprano Angel Blue is every inch the coquette as she flirts her way around Café Momus, but she convincingly brings out Musetta’s caring side towards the end. With a voice to match the high drama, Blue has been perfectly cast, and is the undoubted highlight of the show. The male characters are not quite so commanding, though Richard Burkhard, as Musetta’s old flame Marcello, proves technically robust in song. Gwyn Hughes Jones, who had previously appeared in the 2010 revival of this production, makes a tender Rodolfo, with a particularly gorgeous upper register. He was buoyed along by Harewood Artist Duncan Rock, in sublime voice as Schaunard, and Andrew Craig Brown as the despondent Colline. Simon Butteriss is hilarious in the role of landlord Benoit, whose slapstick Cockney accent makes his red-faced drunkenness all the more funny.

The sentimentality evinced from both orchestra and cast is minimal, thanks to Oleg Caetani’s swift tempi, but in this they avoid any sick-bucket clichés and allow the drama of Puccini’s glorious score to work its magic organically. The orchestral dynamic just managed to swamp the singers once or twice, but the balance was largely excellent.

The misty eyes of a number of members of the audience as Mimì drew her last breath were the product of a genuine approach to the scenic, dramatic and musical aspects of La bohème. It is a hugely enjoyable production; the appearance of an aged Jonathan Miller on stage on the opening night spoke volumes about its success (both in the past and to come). My one gripe is Amanda Holden’s oddly clumsy translation, with meter and sense going to pot in some awkwardly forced rhyming couplets. More than once, the music runs out before the syllables do, and it becomes quite distracting. However, that is not reason enough to discourage anyone from seeing this remarkable production for themselves.