One may easily forget to notice John Copley’s production of La bohème nowadays, given that it has been running since 1974, and must be firmly imprinted on the minds of regular attendees at Covent Garden. Yet it is a stunning achievement, richly atmospheric, meticulously detailed, grandly set, yet on a scale that never dwarfs the personae or diminishes the drama.
The sets provided constant pleasure throughout this elsewhere problematic performance. Last month, I found the Covent Garden production of La fanciulla del West to be underwhelming, principally because Kenneth Adam’s sets are so spectacular as to be overbearing. Character drama was lost amid a tightly choreographed labyrinth of visual splendour, which is unhelpful given that, in that opera, the characters are but shadily drawn anyway. Those in La bohème are evidently not so, and Copley’s production, while richly evoking Puccini’s Parisian landscapes, focuses on the people, allowing the drama of their interlocking existences to register clearly.
I suspect that many enjoy this staging for nostalgic reasons, in that, in its conformity to expectations, it troubles not and provides a lyrical counterpoint to the horrid dissonance of contemporary opera production. What strikes me about Copley’s Bohème is, rather, how deeply it penetrates Puccini’s drama and how consistently illuminating the staging appears, twenty two revivals in. In other words, while the aesthetic appears not contemporary, the substance does, though it is presented through largely traditional means.
The hopeless poverty of the Parisians, love’s ability to provide momentary transcendence, however delusional, the psychological instabilities that love can create, the idea of community created out of tragedy, all these are issues here tackled, and tackled insightfully. Those who equate tradition with inferiority will inevitably disagree.
Production aside, my feelings were mixed about this revival. The most noticeable performance came from tenor Wookyung Kim, who I remember as the Duke in Rigoletto, now appearing as Rodolfo. His voice appears even more beautiful than it did last year, the rich tenor sound powerfully projected, shaped and shaded down to the slimmest pianissimo. Kim, however, still does not convince me as an actor: his face is inexpressive and he too frequently resorts to stock ‘operatic’ (i.e. un-operatic) posturing, most obviously when easing himself into his occasionally effortful upper register. It is hard to believe that this Rodolfo suffers at the grip of poverty; he looks in perfect health throughout.
This was especially noticeable, for the performances of Christopher Maltman and Alexia Voulgaridou as Marcello and Mimi were physically and psychologically convincing. Voulgaridou’s is not a soprano that can be completely relied on, but then this artist’s strength lies not vocally but in her dramatic assumption of the role. This Mimi is dreadfully frail from the start, the most arduous vocal lines exploding from her figure and racking her chest, the character’s emotional progression tracked endlessly in Voulgaridou’s deathly face and dark eyes.
Maltman too inhabits his role superbly, deploying his large baritone to thunderous effect and, if truth be told, tending to make more impression on stage than Kim, especially in the Act III quartet. Occasionally he can overact, but then a difficult balance must be maintained in the projection of character in a large house such as this. Voulgaridou also had her problems with regard to this, in that here her Mimi tended to fade from attention, most noticeably in Act II, though perhaps that is inevitable. It certainly was here, with Anna Leese dominating proceedings as a flirtatious, though not sensuously vocalised Musetta.
What else? The opening stretches of Acts I and IV were lively and strongly characterised, Roderick Williams and Alexander Vinogradov handsome and charismatic as Schaunard and Colline. The chorus maintained discipline. Christian Badea conducted with polish, beautifully caressing the love music with gently breathing strings and drawing bite and pungency from the woodwind elsewhere. A more overriding orchestral personality, though, would certainly have been wished for. It was an enjoyable performance, but this splendid production has seen better casts.