The Press Information folded into my programme for La Bohème with English National Opera at the London Coliseum opened with a sentence that no critic needs to see or could warm to: ‘Opera’s greatest love story comes to the London Coliseum in Benedict Andrews’ brilliant new interpretation’. Forget the missing “s” after the name Andrews and its apostrophe, which sounds when we say “Andrewsiz” as we do, honouring the possessive ‘his’ that the apostrophe represents. St Thomas’ Hospital alas is equally illiterate.
But can any press pack for critics call Puccini’s flawless masterpiece ‘Opera’s greatest love story’? Not many operas lack love stories. Bohème is one in a long line. And how about ‘brilliant new interpretation’ – before any of us scribblers has even seen it? And, anyway, the production was staged by Dutch National Opera in Amsterdam last year and there are even photos of the Dutch cast in the programme.
It is not just Lunchtime O’Boulez in Private Eye who fears for the future of this great national institution. Ways of saying things are warning signs. The new Chief Executive – who was a management consultant – is ‘updating the brand’ and wanting to ‘engage with stakeholders’, we learn from the website. Of course she is not responsible for this borrowed production (one of many in the current season) nor for the fact that the company – for almost a decade under John Berry, whose successor as artistic leader has not yet been found – created very few revivable successes of standard works with its new productions. Nor can she be blamed for the false economy of abolishing the ensemble that nurtured so many great British singers in the past and helped sustain so many fine British directors and designers; instead relying on John McMurray’s often short-term casting choices, and preference for coming American stars already signed up by Columbia Artists. These days you would not know from what you see and hear that English National Opera exists not just to put on more or less good performances at an affordable price (both in the way it funds what it does, and in the ticket prices it charges) but to affirm and embody the operatic tradition in our country – which is why it works in English translation. It has existed since the 1920s but it’s doubtful it will survive a century.
The Chinese woman conductor of this new Bohème, Xian Zhang, made her ENO debut with this opera in 2007. She is a sensitive stylist but does not seem to do much opera. Conducting Puccini involves not only the brilliant colouring and expressiveness of the orchestration, but minute attention to the way the singers actually make their characters’ meaning and intention clear. Puccini is not an idiom in which songs are shaped; but a musical realisation of dramatic communication and self-examination. Partly because the conducting did not register and dragged – luxuriating in details without regard to how the drama was building – and partly because the young cast seemed hopelessly inexperienced and uninteresting as actors, I have seldom experienced a Bohème with so little real emotion and commitment in it.
The four Bohemians were all very tall; but not separately characterised as one usually sees. Duncan Rock’s Marcello was soft-toned and reserved; and Ashley Riches and Nicholas Masters as the musician and the philosopher seemed indistinguishable. Zach Borichevsky, the American Rodolfo, flunked the top notes and failed to impress. All four were presented as contemporary rich youngsters. Corinne Winters, the American Mimi – who has a really nice and colourful voice – never for a moment seemed like a poor underpaid innocent seamstress.
Since the new Andrews staging requires Rodolfo to be about to mainline with heroin when Mimi knocks on the door (where we have seen her standing almost from the start of the opera, since it has a glass panel), getting to know each other is all to do with how they manage their shared drug-taking. I have never thought Bohème could have much to do with Trainspotters. The Café Momus turns out to be a sort of John Lewis store in the run-up to Christmas, a background which Simon Butteriss (doubling as the landlord Benoît and Musetta’s rich companion Alcindoro) struggles to dominate with his impeccable style. But, as with Mariame Clemént’s Bern staging of Bohème, the populace (especially an excess of children) are disguised in masks and the parading band is reduced to a few musicians marooned on a shop-front display.
The third act also uses a sort of architectural float for the nightclub where Musetta (Rhian Lois, who is rather good) is performing. But since almost none of the emotional discussion and connections between the central characters carries any conviction, all the efforts and differences from normal in the Andrews staging pass for nothing. The last act, the death scene, takes place with the back window from the artists’ studio no longer frosted up but showing a rather London-like park, with young prep-school children playing in uniforms. This is what the press hand-out meant by ‘interpretation’, I suppose. But I wonder whether Andrews, who has been busy directing a film, actually rehearsed this revival. The programme credits a movement expert called Ran Arthur Braun (who looked after the ‘flying’ in the recent Peter Pan opera in Stuttgart and Cardiff) as Associate Director – which often can be taken to mean that the production was actually not staged by the credited director but by the associate. Benedict Andrews is a good director who works well with performers (however dumb his ideas for La Bohème may have been) and this scarcely seemed recognisable as work done by him.
The lamentable recent reduction in the ENO subsidy by four million pounds has clearly crippled the institution, and prevented it from performing the role it should perform. The diet this season is entirely borrowed shows or revivals, some of work created 30 years ago. The problem is that neither the Government, nor Arts Council England, thinks it is an institution that needs to exist, though this is in fact a country with far too few performing arts institutions. If one that matters – like ENO – fails to live up to its potential and purpose, the solution is not to abolish it but to replace those running and supervising it (the board and the artistic leadership) with totally new people. But they need to be experts. And after what has been happening to the performing arts – and especially opera – in Great Britain over recent decades, no such experts are anywhere to be found. ND