The Ultimate Operatic Romance? La Bohème at the Royal Opera House.
With our relentless hounding of pop culture icons through the media such as Princess Diana or Amy Winehouse, we are a culture just as obsessed with the ‘femme fragile’ as the late 19th-century audience for whom the consumptive female heroines of Giuseppe Verdi’s La Traviata and then Giacomo Puccini’s La Bohème provided an irresistible draw.
Puccini’s four-act opera, with a libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica and a story taken from Henri Murger’s novel Scenes de la Vie de Bohème, has just opened at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. It’s a glorious second revival of Richard Jones’ 2017 production replacing the much-loved John Copley version in the ROH’s repertoire.
There has been some debate about Jones’ production with some critics carping about designer Stewart Laing’s set for the opening scene – set in a Parisian attic garret inhabited by four young ‘bohemian’ artists who manage to avoid paying their back rent to their landlord Benoit, touchingly played by Jeremy White, by getting him drunk. With its exposed wooden beams and cramped conditions, it tells us enough about the life they lead without having to be a literal representation and acts as an effective frame for the nascent stirrings of the new realism, or ‘verismo’ in Italian opera, that Puccini is flirting within La Bohème just as Chekhov had done in theatre a couple of decades before.
The story revolves around two couples; the first being the poet Rodolfo played by Charles Castronovo, whose fine tenor voice navigates the blazing passion of the ravishing love duet “O soave fanciulla’ as well as the more tender moments of ‘Che gelida manina’ with aplomb, and his lover, the sickly seamstress Mimi, played by Simona Mihai in a triumphant return to Covent Garden, filling in for the sadly indisposed Bulgarian soprano Sonya Yoncheva. Their relationship runs in parallel to the second couple, artist Marcello and the coquettish Musetta, with Andrzej Filonczyk and Aida Garifullina resplendent in a stunning scarlet frock, pulling both comedy and great feeling out of their duet ‘Quando m’en vo’, one of the real showstoppers of the opera. There is a real sense of emotional authenticity at the heart of this production and the bonds between the men and the women feel much more genuine than in much opera and more like a Parisian fin de siècle episode of “Friends” with plenty of light touches framing inevitable the tragedy.
None of the four men – artist, poet, philosopher and musician – are having much success, the musician Schaunard’s most recent gig is playing his fiddle to an Englishman’s dying parrot. But they support each other in their narcissistic idealism, sharing their resources and scrawling childish pictures of naked women across their apartment walls in a display of their emotional immaturity. The women’s challenges are more real and pressing; Musetta is economically reliant on her lovers and whilst Mimi has a trade, her illness creates a wedge between her and Rodolfo who feels he doesn’t have the means to support her. Conductor Emmanuel Villaume also seemed focussed on the realism of the piece with the Orchestra of The Royal Opera House following the ebbs and flows of Puccini’s melodies without sacrificing dramatic integrity and the strings, in particular, providing a gorgeous lush backdrop to the emotion.
The orchestra was matched by the power and precision of the Royal Opera Chorus adding a hefty vocal punch to the crowd scenes. It is in the transition to the second act when the magical elements of this production start to emerge. A glistening snowfall is followed by the appearance of frames containing delightful evocations of Parisian shopping arcades in the Latin quarter which then transform into the chic Café Momus where a tipsy Musetta, with her leg up on the table, her hair loosened and her knickers off, sets about seducing a non-too-resistant Marcello.
This is a terrific La Bohème, just as suitable for the opera novice and younger audiences as for the more traditional ROH audience and with tickets from £11 upwards it really is accessible to all.
Royal Opera House
10 January–13 February 2020
The performance lasts about 2 hours 35 minutes, including one interval.
La Traviata is also showing at the Royal Opera House. Check our review.