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Jonathan Miller's Dramatic Truth

Veteran British director helps Cincinnati Opera tackle 'La Boheme'

By Anne Arenstein · July 18th, 2010 · Onstage
Puccini’s La Boheme is a guaranteed crowd-pleaser. Love at first sight in Paris for the seamstress Mimi and the poet Rudolfo, struggling young artists, with a heartbreaking conclusion and that meltingly beautiful score. The inspiration for Rent, it’s the perfect opera for first-timers, for date night, for anyone (and much better musical theater than Rent).

And when the staging is by veteran British director Jonathan Miller, La Boheme is a must-see, a Cincinnati Opera co-production with the English National Opera updated to Paris in the early 1930s with a cast of exciting young singers, including the luminous Ailyn Pérez as Mimi and Richard Tucker Award winner Stephen Costello (a tenor) as Rudolfo.

Miller is a glorious polymath in a world of numbing specialization. While training as a physician at Cambridge, he teamed with up with Peter Cook, Dudley Moore and Alan Bennett in 1961 to present Beyond the Fringe, a satiric review that forever changed British comedy. Miller went on to stage productions for the Old Vic in England, Metropolitan Opera, La Scala and Glyndebourne as well as the BBC’s Shakespeare series.

His BBC television productions range from The Body in Question, a brilliant series on the history of medicine, to The Atheism Tapes, a survey of non-belief produced in 2000. And then there’s his work as a writer, lecturer, photographer and sculptor.

At 76, he’s still brilliant, outspoken and a wicked mimic with spot-on comic delivery. He was knighted in 2003, but don’t call him Sir Jonathan; his title of choice is Dr. Miller.

His first invitation to direct opera came in 1974 when his neighbor, conductor Roger Norrington, asked him to stage Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte.

“I’d never seen an opera, and I didn’t read music,” Miller says. “But Roger assured me that he did, so I took it on.”

This and all of his subsequent productions are inspired by visuals — the art, architecture and designs of a given period.

So it comes as no surprise that Miller’s passions for medicine and photography inform this production of La Boheme.

“Photography’s been an important part of my inspiration for doing plays and operas,” he says. “By the time you get to 1930, we have extremely refined and elaborate pictures of cities on the move. We’ve used the photography of Brassai and others of that period.” (Brassai’s 1933 book Paris de Nuit became an instant classic, and elements of those iconic images find their way into Isabella Bywater’s set designs.)

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Jonathan Miller is addicted to the details.

As for staging La Boheme, Miller tamps down the histrionics and aims for what is recognizably human, especially when it comes to Mimi’s death scene.

“I am absolutely addicted to the negligible detail,” Miller says. “And dying is one of the things you have to get right.”

There will be no outbursts of emotion, no tearful moments or what Miller disdainfully labels “a victory lap moment.”

“She just fades away, and then no one knows she’s died,” he says.

Miller’s insatiable curiosity for how things work led to medical school, and the skills are easily transferred to theater.

“I’m just interested in getting action right,” he says.

He points out a nearby waiter engaged in conversation, noting his stance, the hands in the pocket, the tilt of his head.

“Those are the details that are too frequently overlooked in opera,” Miller says. “They do silly gestures and overdramatize things.”

That won’t happen in Miller’s La Boheme. Characters with no lines take on lives of their own, like the woman who sits in stoned silence as the flirt Musetta sings her waltz. Miller is thrilled with the cast of young, attractive singers who are skilled actors.

“We have the most dazzling, extraordinary (married) couple," he says, "and in spite of being responsible for what’s on stage I find myself not able to speak for several minutes after their scenes are finished.”

As for the four young men who inhabit the cramped garret — the bohemians — Miller has no patience for portraying them as struggling young artists, yet another example of overdramatizing. He views them as spoiled upper-class boys fascinated by slumming with the lowlifes.

“They’ve seen pictures of Le Bateau-Lavoir (the artists quarter in Montmartre where Picasso and Bracque lived) and they think, 'We’re artists,' ” Miller says. “Well, no you’re not, and five years from now you won’t remember who Mimi was.”

His opinion reads as youth-bashing, but it’s in keeping with his insistence on hewing to the dramatic truth.

“What charms and excites people is the shock and the delight of being reminded of what you knew all along,” Miller says. “It’s, ‘Oh, of course.’ That’s what everything’s about. It’s what theater’s about.”


LA BOHEME is presented by Cincinnati Opera at 7:30 p.m. July 21 and 23 and 3 p.m. July 25 at Music Hall. Buy tickets and get venue details here.

 
 
 
 

 

 
 
 
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