No-one can blame the Royal Opera House for sticking with the same production of La bohème for thirty-eight years. John Copley’s undoubtedly strong creation, with its emphasis on humanity, but with a touch of magic, sells out every time, even now on its twenty-fourth revival. When it can thus help, in some small way, to subsidise the ROH’s more obscure and adventurous output, there is nothing to be gained by replacing it, and potentially much to lose.
From my own experiences of seeing it, however, it seems as if the revivals go in waves. Sometimes the production can feel tired, but just when it really does appear to be on its last legs it suddenly undergoes something of a Renaissance, and on this occasion it seems to be riding a crest once more.
If ticket sales for this bohème do not tend to be dependent on the conductor or cast, the actual success of a revival can be, and in Semyon Bychkov the Royal Opera House has found an exceptional interpreter of Puccini’s score. He sculpts the music to perfection, letting the music breathe with a volume and exuberance that highlight all of the necessary passion, intensity and drama, while keeping the sound balanced and never sacrificing an ounce of musical detail.
He is supported by a superb cast. Joseph Calleja as Rodolfo hits ethereal heights with an expansive tone that proves highly flexible, and in ‘Che gelida manina’ his soaring phrases reach something close to perfection. Nor is such a strident voice any hindrance to capturing nuances, and the aria’s final note is tapered off brilliantly. Carmen Giannattasio as Mimì has a waif-like frailty, and yet her voice is beautifully mature. Again, she reconciles the latter with her fragile character through keen attention to phrasing, and her performance of ‘Mi chiamano Mimì’ is a spine tingling highlight of the evening. The only difficulty is that both performances are so accomplished, with every sound and gesture being thought through, that it is hard to believe in the instinctive and spontaneous nature of their young, innocent love, although I can hardly criticise the pair for being too polished.
If, as Marcello, Fabio Capitanucci’s vocal output does not strictly match Calleja’s, it is still pleasing enough, and with his large, bold gestures he proves an excellent partner and counterbalance to Rodolfo. Nuccia Focile pushes the notion of Musetta as a spoilt little brat to extremes as she takes Café Momus by storm. Her performance, however, of ‘Quando me’n vo’ befits the character perfectly without ever really capturing the searing beauty of the vocal lines, and throughout the evening there is a disconcerting harshness to her vibrato. Still, Capitanucci and Focile help us to see that this tale is ultimately about two pairs of lovers, and when Rodolfo and Mimì embrace at the end of Act III, just as important to the closing tableau is the image of Marcello in the background looking utterly dejected.
Matthew Rose as Colline offers a highly spiritual rendition of ‘Vecchia zimarra’, Thomas Oliemans is suitably wry as Schaunard and Donald Maxwell is a brilliant, verging on the grotesque, Alcindoro. The children’s chorus in Act II is both spirited and polished, and represents a marvelous achievement for the Royal Opera House Youth Opera Company, founded in 2010 and now making its debut on the main stage here.
On the opening night a moving presentation was made to John Copley after the performance in recognition of his fifty years directing at the Royal Opera House. This La bohème has been running for three quarters of that time, and it is fitting that on this momentous occasion it should be seen at something close to its very best.
Casts vary for some of the run. In particular, on 19 and 23 June Roberto Alagna and Angela Gheorghiu sing Rodolfo and Mimì.
The Royal Opera House’s La bohème will be relayed live to twenty-two BP Summer Big Screens around the country on 17 May, and broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 16 June.