Smack My Puccini Up: La Boheme At Coliseum Reviewed

La Bohème, ENO London Coliseum ★★☆☆☆

By Stuart Black Last edited 39 months ago
Smack My Puccini Up: La Boheme At Coliseum Reviewed La Bohème, ENO London Coliseum 2
Corinne Winters and Zach Borichevsky. Photo by Tristram Kenton.

Radical updates of classical operas are nothing new, as young directors try simultaneously to blow away the cobwebs and make their names. But the tactic can be risky if that switch isn’t thought through deeply and all that’s lost from the original setting isn’t balanced with new elements that carefully recalibrate the drama. Benedict Andrews’s new take on La Bohème for the ENO is a case in point.

The Australian theatre director drags Puccini’s much-loved tale of down-and-out artists in 1840s Paris kicking and screaming into what looks like the suburbs of Sydney in the mid-1990s. And it’s not pretty. The set by Johannes Schütz seems to be cobbled together from Ikea off-cuts: a sterile white apartment that is later pulled apart to form an equally uninviting minimalist bar. Then against this we get Victoria Behr’s pig-ugly costumes, which mix pukey shades of pea green and mustard with bright pink wigs and leopard skin coats, along with Del Boy-esque spivs and a chorus of kids in Halloween masks.

And while this vision is decidedly uneasy on the eye, the real problem this reworking causes is that we lose a vital sense of romance for the beatnik characters at the centre of the tale. The coupling of poor poet Rodolfo with his broken butterfly Mimi lacks hope here, with pretty much all sympathy shot apart the moment Rodolfo straps a belt around Mimi’s arm so he can inject her full of horse.

In this version she doesn’t collapse from consumption but cold turkey — which simply means that we hate Rodolfo. Wobbly-voiced Zach Borichevsky skulks around in the part, either smacked out of his brain or having paint and pillow fights with his equally obnoxious artist chums. Corinne Waters as Mimi is the stronger singer but even she can’t make us care about Mimi and as she faded away in the final act yesterday, we heard someone in the audience mutter “just die already.”

The libretto is translated by Amanda Holden (no not that one) and though things start with a promisingly joky exchange between Rodolfo and his flatmate Marcello as they burn the former’s play to heat their freezing flat, the lyrics become quite flat quite quickly. The line “I cannot bear this crowd of vulgar people” is regrettably on the money.

As a replacement for Jonathan Miller’s 2009 hit production this reboot is disappointing, though perhaps the problem lies in the grand setting of the London Coliseum. Andrews’s version is a co-production with the Dutch National Opera so maybe when performed in Amsterdam the references to red light bars and bongs would be more resonant.

La Bohème runs at the London Colisuem until 26 November. Tickets £12-125 (with 500 seats at £20 for each performance).

Last Updated 19 October 2015