Composer: Giacomo Puccini
Director: Richard Jones
Revival Director: Julia Burbach
Conductor: Emmanuel Villaume
One of the classics of the international opera canon, La bohème returns to the Royal Opera House after 650 previous performances through the years. Richard Jones’ version is a little over two years old, debuting at the ROH in September 2017, and replacing a version loved by many since it first played in the mid-1970s. It was not a smooth transition, this jump from well-worn (though still admired) familiarity to Jones’ fresher, somewhat slicker version.
With this latest revival, the second, the well-publicised flaws (some of which are intrinsic to the production itself) are still present, though happily there’s a lot to provoke genuine and heartfelt praise for the piece. It’s an uneven production, with many irksome creaks, but when it starts to shine it dazzles.
Set in late 19th century Paris, Puccini’s work famously showcases two faces of the romantic city – the cold one, inhabited by the poverty-driven class of students, artisans and every other hand-to-mouth worker is contrasted with the luxurious, decadent, cash-rich side. Set over four acts, we follow Rodolfo (a poet) and Mimi (an embroiderer) after a chance encounter leads to a fierce love and wild emotions before one of opera’s most heartbreaking endings. Their friends (a painter, dancer, musician, philosopher) around them, the story is at once minute, and city-scale.
With this idea of scale in mind, the key issues with the production come sharply into focus. Framed by the giant opera house proscenium stage, the set created (designed here by Stewart Laing) for the attic where Rodolfo and his friends live, where he and Mimi fall in love, and where we finish the story seems almost miniature. The performers (unfortunately, at times, their voices too) and the impact of the story is dissipated in the thick layer of blank space above them as eyes flick up to surtitles. The shopping arcades and crowded cafe where they experience the high-life are beautiful, though again suffer in the space. Act three, however, benefits enormously from the bleak shadow. Curtain up scenery changes between acts also completely remove any momentum or emotional continuity from act to act, a terrible flaw to have retained in new revivals.
Set against this, however, we have the experience as a whole. Charles Castronovo as Rodolfo is a perfect romantic lead – vulnerable, excitable, smooth (surprising absolutely nobody). His tenor voice is an actual treasure, and while it has to battle within the set it’s the perfect vehicle for a gorgeous performance of Che gelida manina. This is reciprocated by Simona Mihai as Mimi (stepping into the role at short notice in the first performance of this run, and who will play Musetta later in January and February) – both in the first flush of love with Sì, mi chiamano Mimì and O soave fanciulla, and as a powerful double act in her death scene to close the night.
Backed by stong performances all round, with special mention to the other couple, Andrzej Filonczyk as Marcello and Aida Garifullina as Musetta, a powerful, well sung, dramatic counterpoint to the two core characters.
The orchestra under Emmanuel Villaume felt playful, and no-one does a snowy atmosphere like the Covent Garden team.
It’s likely this version of La bohème will continue for another few years. No one can tell if they’re going to have as much success with casting and conducting in future, but this time around at least they’ve come out strong and produced something beautiful, impactful and musically wonderful.
Runs until 3 February 2020