It is hard to go wrong with Puccini’s evergreen masterpiece: the music steadfastly lyrical, the drama concise, the sentiments clear and touching. And so it is here, in this second revival of Jonathan Miller’s 1930s production for English National Opera, the pleasingly young cast produce the goods without tripping over the furniture. And what impressive sets they are from Isabella Bywater – the boys’ freezing garret transforming smoothly into Act Two’s Café Momus, while a chorus of children and assorted sailors and prostitutes fill the stage with colour.
Quibbles might include a lack of chemistry between the two pairs of lovers – Kate Valentine’s rather formidable Mimì to Gwyn Hughes Jones’s meek Rodolfo, and Richard Burkhard’s foppish Marcello to Angel Blue’s towering Musetta. Still, it is an impressive, full-voiced and sassy turn from the American mezzo. Indeed, all of the singing was good – Hughes Jones, in particular, displaying an attractive lyric tenor.
There is strong support from the other would-be bohemians – middle-class boys slumming it for a laugh – in director Miller’s vision. Duncan Rock and Andrew Craig Brown display fine deep voices and make much of the play-fighting and faux ballet in which they indulge to keep warm. Their engaging, believable acting contributes to a production that eschews melodrama.
In the pit, the naturalistic feel is helped by Oleg Caetani who conducts the fine orchestra at a sprightly pace. In Act One he initially has the levels turned up too high (possibly because the set contains the singers in an upstairs room). But he soon finds the volume control and the rest is solid and detailed – though traditionalists used to the overwrought emotional finale might find this muted ending a disappointment.