This is a production in which a master has been at work. Towards the conclusion of Act 4, there is a moment when the other friends leave Rudolfo and the dying Mimi alone. All the text gives a director to work with is Colline's advice to Schaunard that while he is selling his overcoat, his friend should leave the apartment also. Miller, aided by Isabella Bywater's versatile set has Schaunard close the flat door, walk slowly down the stairs, and then just sit, alone and somehow hopeless at the bottom. Just that simple choice adds a telling emotional layer to the story.
The whole second half of this show (Acts Three and Four) is an object lessen in management of relations between singers and overall stage pictures. Telling image follows telling image, like a series of old paintings capturing moment after moment. The clever placing of Mimi in the alley, overhearing Rudolfo confess to Marcello his conviction that she is dying, the counterpoint of Mimi and Rudolfo leant against the side of one building, barely touching, while the other pair argue across from them. Miller also understands the value of stillness. Unlike so many opera directors (but interestingly similar to McVicar's Rigoletto at the Royal Opera) he is not afraid just to have his characters stand or sit there and sing to each other, but, and this is the crucial thing, that stillness develops naturally from the characterisation – it is never lifeless or dull, but compellingly effective.
To execute Miller's masterful design, ENO has assembled their best all round cast so far this season. Not everybody is perfectly cast but the singing is in the main excellent and there are some real standouts both as actors and singers. Of the two leads, Gwyn Hughes Jones (Rudolfo) is consistently superb. He has a ringing, yet also lyrical sound voice, and his diction is pretty much spot on. I was less convinced by Elizabeth Llewellyn, winner of the inaugural Voice of Black Opera competition in 2009, here making her house debut. To my ear there is an odd contained quality to the voice that sometimes makes the sound produced a little off-putting, and some phrases sounded a little snatched. That said there is potential there, she has the stamina for the part, there were some moments of beauty and giving young British singers a chance is one of the things ENO should be doing. Jones was well matched by Roland Wood's Marcello, especially in their third act scene where they discuss Mimi's condition, but again he had a slightly under par partner in Mairead Buicke's Musetta. All eyes should really be dazzled by her in the cafe scene, but her presence (both physically and vocally) was not quite commanding enough. Among the other supporting characters, I particularly want to note George von Bergen's Schaunard. His characterisation is beautifully judged throughout, diction excellent, tone of voice commanding. I hope we shall see more of him.
In the pit, Stephen Lord was a little on the slow side in the first two acts, and could have done with slightly more sense of momentum and drama both in the first meeting between Mimi and Rudolfo and in the cafe scene; however, like the production, he was faultless after the interval. Every section of the orchestra played superbly. The chorus, though without much to do, was in rather better voice and control than in its earlier outing in Faust.
It is a mark of how powerful this production is that as Mimi approaches death I found almost despite myself that I was on the verge of tears. The moment of death itself evokes a heavy sense of one's powerlessness in the face of it, and a kind of odd sense that it comes into all places – a room which up to now has been quite a cheery place seems somehow not the right place for such a thing, but of course there is no escape. Scattered about the apartment each of Rudolfo's friends is posed in an attitude of despair. Schaunard's declaration to Marcello that “It's over” is cleverly understated so increasing the impact of Rudolfo's terrible realisation. The last moment of the production is another beautiful piece of judgement. An understated motif of the last act is the uneasy relationship between Marcello and the returned Musetta. At first he maintains a distance which gradually softens: as the last chords sound, they embrace. But is it for comfort in the face of death, or is there hope for their future? The gesture is ambivalent, a final frozen moment in the lives of characters whose ultimate destiny we are not to know.
This is a deserved revival for an outstanding production, and one which should be required viewing for all first time opera directors as an object lesson in getting the fundamentals right. Let us hope Jonathan Miller can be persuaded back to the Coliseum very soon.