A fresh, energetic cast brings a youthful energy to Richard Jones’ staging of this perennial favourite at The Royal Opera House.
Following last season’s triple-cast performances of Puccini’s tearjerker, La bohème is back once again at The Royal Opera – again with three alternating casts for a run of 14 performances. Richard Jones’ staging, now on its fifth revival – having replaced the long-lived Copley staging in 2017, still divides critics, but on the basis of the enthusiastic reception Wednesday night’s performance received, the Covent Garden audience would appear to have taken it to its heart.
An element of Brechtian alienation is not a trait usually associated with stagings of this opera, but with his designer Stewart Laing, Jones never lets us forget that we’re in a theatre, watching a show. Stagehands shift the sets around, and those not in use are visible at the side of the stage. This approach adds a sense of artifice to the proceedings, and also facilitates a single interval, but for me at least, doesn’t distract from the emotional heart of the opera.
As to be expected, Jones directs with a deft hand, and in the process creates three-dimensional characters. And given the company had assembled a youthful-looking cast, largely made up of newcomers, there was a palpable sense of spontaneity, so for once the heartache, loss and inability to process complex emotions that is the crux of this opera came across as genuine.
He’s aided and abetted by Laing’s pared back design for the students’ attic which helps the audience focus on the characters and their emotions, without any distraction. There are plenty of welcome distractions in the second act, however, with its bustling shopping arcades, and a vibrant Café Momus teeming with life, but Jones’ skill as a director is evident as your eye always knows where to go. The shocked reactions from the fellow diners at Musetta’s antics are priceless.
“…Jones never lets us forget that we’re in a theatre, watching a show”
In the capable hands of revival director Simon Iorio, Jones’ staging came across freshly minted, complete with a real sense of ensemble – something that can’t be taken for granted in an international house. The well-matched quartet of Bohemians – physically as well as vocally – was up there with some of the best to have graced this staging. Russian baritone Mikhail Timoshenko made an auspicious house debut as Marcello, his warm, vigorous baritone effortlessly filling the house – his is clearly a name to watch. Hansung Yoo turned in a vivid, energetically-voiced and acted performance as Schaunard, while Alexander Köpeczi’s Colline had the required sepulchral tones to bid a moving farewell to his coat in the final act.
Albanian tenor, Saimir Pirgu, has sung a variety of roles here since his thrilling debut as Rinuccio in Jones’ pitch-perfect staging of Gianni Schicchi in 2007 and here was an ardent, full-voiced Rodolfo. He phrased ‘Che gelida manina’ lovingly, producing plenty of delicate mezzo-voce tone where required, and wasn’t afraid to pull out all the stops for the money notes. It’s a shame, however, he opted for the (unwritten) top C in his duet with Mimi at the close of the first act – the only blemish on an otherwise impeccable performance. He was ably partnered by Armenian soprano, Ruzan Mantashyan (another debutante), who was a touching, heartbreaking Mimi. She possesses a creamy, agile, lyric-spinto soprano, capable of spinning Puccini’s soaring vocal lines with ease, and she’s an affecting actor as well. There was an uncommon tenderness to ‘Mi chiamano Mimì’ while her death scene was properly harrowing – hankies at the ready! Stepping in at relatively short notice for an ailing Danielle de Niese, Lauren Fagan was everything you could want from Musetta – bold, brassy, and with a heart, as well as voice, of gold. Less coquettish than her predecessor, her performance was full-blooded, and gorgeously sung.
American conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson is a dab hand at Puccini – her La fanciulla del West at English National Opera remains a happy memory – and is naturally in tune with the music’s ebb and flow. She led a lovingly sculpted account of the work, never cloying or self-indulgent – just honest – eliciting fabulous playing from the orchestra. All in all, this was a thoroughly satisfying performance of this operatic warhorse. The ensuing casts have big shoes to fill.
• Details of upcoming performances can be found here.