Puccini's La Bohème is the world's second-most-popular opera, trailing only Verdi's La Traviata in the performance league tables. Anyone wondering why should catch the revival of Jonathan Miller's 2009 production for English National Opera, which premièred at the Coliseum on Monday. It offers a very enjoyable mixture of postcard-perfect sets, fine singing, lively drama, sonorous orchestral playing and, of course, meltingly romantic tunes. If there’s nothing very novel or surprising about it — well, that’s not why one sees La Bohème.
The singers are uniformly excellent. Kate Valentine has the ideal voice for Mimi — free and youthful yet also warm and rich. Gwyn Hughes Jones sang Rodolfo with a rare beauty of tone, though his lightish tenor was occasionally overwhelmed by the orchestra. Richard Burkhard, Duncan Rock and Andrew Craig Brown are all thoroughly convincing as the other bantering bohemians, while the glamorous Californian soprano Angel Blue makes for a suitably scene-stealing Musetta in the Act II cafe sequence (even if she doesn't always seem to get the concept of a fourth wall).
Some of the ensemble set pieces were not as tight as they could have been on press night — notably the Act IV duet between Rodolfo and Marcello. But these problems will probably be ironed out as the run progresses.
There’s an irony in giving a work about bohemian life in a tiny, freezing Parisian garret the big-budget treatment on London's largest stage. Miller tries to chip away at the contradiction by updating the action from the wealthy Belle Epoque, when Puccini wrote it, to the Depression-dogged 1930s. This is supposed to create "an unsentimental view of the bohemian life of depravity and squalor", according to the press notes.
Perhaps. The impression we received — as so often with Miller productions — was rather one of a perfectly proportioned doll's house. There’s an image of a crumbling apartment block on one side of the stage, but that’s about as far as the squalor goes.
But it's not worth worrying too much about these problems, which are as much in Puccini's score as in Miller's staging. Exquisitely poised between comedy and tragedy, La Bohème is a delightful opera that London's more affordable opera house has staged and cast delightfully. So why complain if it's more bourgeois than bohème?
La Bohème is playing at the Coliseum until 29 June. Tickets start at £25.