This revival of The Royal Opera’s production of La bohme from 1974 features not only Julia Trevelyan Oman’s marvellously detailed set designs but the return of the original director, John Copley.
With Copley on hand to reinvigorate the action, a cast of talented singers, and a glowing contribution from the orchestra under conductor Christian Badea, Puccini’s opera is brought vividly to life.
Oman’s sets delight in their naturalism and their attention to detail, not only in the depiction of the attic inhabited by Rodolfo and his compatriots in Acts 1 and 4, but also the intensely atmospheric rendering of the Parisian winter’s night in Act 3, complete with falling snowflakes and smoking chimney. Meanwhile, Act 2 (with the street scenes to the left and Caf Momus to the right) is a feast of activity: scurrying children, marching bandsmen, animated cafe patrons and even a chef wiping his bare chest with the dishcloth.
For this opening performance, Rodolfo was with a walking stick, the singer Roberto Aronica having suffered a knee injury shortly beforehand. Even with some last minute input from Copley, there were some compromises in the action and a sense of constriction in Aronica’s voice during Act 1, but the singer nevertheless managed to leave behind these obstacles to produce a heartfelt performance.
Cristina Gallardo-Domas was a strong-voiced Mim, perhaps too strong in her passionate performance of “Mi chiamano Mim” and the subsequent love duet given Aronica’s handicap on this occasion, but moving in the remainder of the opera.
Nicole Cabell provided a highly impressive Musetta, an interpretation nicely balancing seductiveness, humour and empathy. There was also good support from Matthew Rose as Colline and Roderick Williams as Schaunard. However, the oustanding performer was the characterful and golden voiced Marcello of Franco Vassallo, making his Royal Opera debut.
Romanian conductor Christian Badea led an orchestral accompaniment that married sparkle (the music of the bandsmen in Act 2 especially vigorous) with ardour and tenderness. The ensemble vocal contributions were excellent too.
At times it was difficult not to feel deeply moved, proving that a traditional staging with the right director, singers and conductor can work together to bring freshness to an old standard.